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NDSU paleontologist going back to Antarctica for more fossils

Eight years ago, in the bitter cold and bleakness of Antarctica, Allan Ashworth and his crew desperately wanted the one thing they had lost: dessert.

Eight years ago, in the bitter cold and bleakness of Antarctica, Allan Ashworth and his crew desperately wanted the one thing they had lost: dessert.

"We are completely suspicious that another group stole it," he said, laughing. "This time, that is not going to happen. We're going to have a double-check on the runway."

Thursday, the North Dakota State University paleontologist will leave Fargo and return to the rocky cliffs where he hit a geologic gold mine in 1995.

The six-week-long fossil finding mission will bring Ashworth and four companions within 300 miles of the South Pole and take them 100 miles away from base camp.

"Of the field parties going out this year, we are the most remote, so safety is a big issue," he said.


The crew plans to return to Beardmore Glacier, where they found a number of fossils in 1995. Most notable was a fly that landed Ashworth in the May 8 issue of the international science journal Nature.

The successful quest made it easier to secure funding for a second trip, Ashworth said. This summer, he received a $220,000 grant from the National Science Foundation Polar Programs to continue his research.

This time, Ashworth is leading his own team. The lineup includes Jane Francis, a fossil wood specialist from England; David Cantrill, a paleobotanist from Sweden; Steve Roof, a stratigrapher from Hampshire College in Massachusetts; and world-class mountaineer Forrest McCarthy of Wyoming.

The crew plans to gather in New Zealand on Saturday, get their clothing and equipment prepared Sunday and fly into McMurdo Sound, site of the main U.S. base in Antarctica, Nov. 10.

When they arrive, the air will be a sharp 10 to 20 degrees below zero -- in other words, normal summertime temperatures.

Following some safety training on the Ross Ice Shelf, they'll fly on to Beardmore Glacier. Ashworth expects to be deep in the field by Nov. 17.

Armed with dynamite and digging tools, the crew will remove rock from 250-foot-high cliff sides. Evidence from the last trip hinted the area may contain fossils even more impressive than the fly, beetles, mollusks and plant life he found in 1995.

Ashworth hopes a single fish tooth found in 1995 will lead to fish bones or gills this time around. Snail and clam fossils found at the head of a fjord indicate birds must have been present in the area, he said. Even mice could be buried in the concrete-like rock.


"They would be really exciting finds," he said during an interview Thursday at his cluttered office in Stevens Hall.

A native of England, Ashworth has taught at NDSU since 1969.

The 59-year-old belongs to a group of scientists dubbed the "dynamists" because they believe that life existed on Antarctica as recently as 3.5 million years ago. The "stabilists," on the other hand, believe the continent has been little more than a big icebox for 15 million years.

His discovery of a fossilized fly pupa from rocks that were 3 million to 17 million years old earned him international attention.

Ashworth suggested the fly's descendants lived in Antarctica -- a hypothesis that flew in the face of scientists who believe all flies in the Southern Hemisphere evolved from northern ancestors.

Ashworth wrote the Nature article with fly expert F. Christian Thompson of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Systematic Entomology Laboratory of the Smithsonian Institution.

Newspapers all over Europe picked up the story, as did CNN.

"That puts NDSU's name out to the world," said Alan White, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics.


NDSU has plenty of researchers working on interesting projects, but expeditions such as Ashworth's are especially exciting and more accessible to the public, he said.

"Besides that, I'm jealous," said White, a biology professor with an interest in geology. "I want to go."

Ashworth and his crew will collect 4 tons of rock during the trip.

"It's like getting gold or platinum," he said. "You have to take tons of rock to get a few ounces of fossils out of it."

The rocks will arrive in Fargo by April or May. Ashworth plans to use less destructive extraction techniques this time to yield better quality fossils.

Ashworth said he expects to be back in Fargo around Christmastime. He doesn't seem bothered that he'll have to eat Thanksgiving dinner on the bottom of the world.

"I have to say, that if I can figure out a way to get a barbecue and turkey out there ..."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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