Why does a paleobiologist go to the Arctic?

Kieran Shephard is a paleobiologist and Curator at the Canadian Museum of Nature who has been an educator on many of Students on Ice’s Arctic Expeditions. In today’s blog post, he shares the importance of studying Arctic fossils.

When one thinks of the Arctic, generally we think of a cold, treeless and snow covered world. I’m not sure this is really the case? There are trees in the arctic such as Willows, Salix arctica, but they are rather small. It is indeed cold and snowy, but not year round. The Arctic is a very special place with lots of surprises to be discovered today and in the geologic past.

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Kieran Shephard teaches a workshop on the 2012 Arctic Expedition.

So, why would a palaeobiologist be excited to explore the Arctic? To understand why, we have to look back into the past. There were long periods of time in the climatic history of the Arctic, that it was much warmer than it is today. Either through continental drift or just the natural cycles of climatic change, the Arctic climate ranged from a tropical environment, to swamps and forests. The diversity of life from about 400 million to about 3 million was amazing. Life you would not have expected existed in the Arctic. The evidence is there to be found in the form of fossils!

To me, there is no place on earth that captures my imagination more than the Canadian Arctic. I can almost envision hadrosaur dinosaurs roaming Bylot Island 65 million years ago. A mighty hippo like creature called Coryophon enjoying a nice swamp bath on Ellesmere Island some 50 million years ago. A Canadian icon, the beaver called the Arctic home just a mere 3.5 million ago as did camels, an animal were think of as being a desert creature.

Alas, if only I had a time machine! Thanks to my friends at Students on Ice, I get to hitch a ride on their expedition to the Arctic. My primary goal is to have youth appreciate the past life that existed in the Arctic and from that gain a greater appreciation for life today. My second goal is to use the SOI expeditions as my time machine. To allow me the opportunity to prospect for fossils along the way. What a great partnership and a wonderful opportunity. In my 25 years at the Canadian Museum of Nature, my adventures with Students on Ice are at the top of my list for meaningful opportunities and rewarding experiences. Long live SOI!

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