As a meteorologist, Alfred Wegener was fascinated by questions such as: Why do coal deposits, a relic of lush ancient forests, occur in the icy barrenness of Antarctica? And why are glacial deposits found in now sweltering tropical Africa? Wegener reasoned that such anomalies could be explained if these two present-day continents -- together with South America, India, and Australia -- originally were part of a supercontinent that extended from the equator to the South Pole and encompassed a wide range of climatic and geologic environments. The break-up of Pangaea and subsequent movement of the individual continents to their present positions formed the basis for Wegener's continental drift theory.
Recently, paleontologists (specialists in studies of fossils) have carefully studied some well-preserved dinosaur remains unearthed at Dinosaur Cove, at the southeastern tip of mainland Australia. Dinosaurs found in most other parts of the world are believed to have lived in temperate or tropical regions, but these Australian species, popularly called "polar" dinosaurs, seemed well adapted to cooler temperature conditions. They apparently had keen night vision and were warm-blooded, enabling them to forage for food during long winter nights, at freezing or sub-freezing temperatures.
This scene -- from a mini-sheet of postage stamps featuring Australian dinosaurs-- shows some of the warm-blooded dinosaurs that thrived in the Dinosaur Cove area under the polar weather conditions that prevailed during the Early Cretaceous (100 - 125 million years ago). (Original artwork by Peter Trusler; reproduced with permission of the Australia Post.)
The last of the dinosaurs became extinct during a period of sharp global cooling toward the end of the Cretaceous period (about 65 million years ago). One current theory contends that the impact of one or more large comets or asteroids was responsible for the cooling trend ("impact winter") that killed off the dinosaurs; another theory attributes the sudden cooling to global climate change brought on by a series of huge volcanic eruptions over a short period of time ("volcanic winter"). The discovery of the polar dinosaurs clearly suggests that they survived the volcanic winter that apparently killed other dinosaur species. This then raises an intriguing question: Why did they become extinct if they were well adapted to a cold climate? Paleontologists do not have the answers. Regardless, this recently acquired paleontologic evidence convincingly demonstrates that Australia has drifted north toward the equator during the past 100 million years. At the time when the Australian polar dinosaurs thrived, their habitat was much farther south, well within the Antarctic Circle.
In 1991, paleontologists discovered the Cryolophosaurus ellioti, a previously unknown dinosaur species and the only one found on the continent of Antarctica. Cryolophosaurus fossils were found at Mount Kirkpatrick, located only 600 km from the present-day South Pole. This newly discovered carnivorous dinosaur probably was similar in appearance to the Allosaurus (see artwork above), except for a distinctive bony crest on its head, another meat-eating species found at Dinosaur Cove, Australia. Studies show that the Cryolophosaurus lived about 200 millions years ago, when Antarctica was still part of Gondwana and had a climate similar to that of Pacific Northwest--mild enough to support large plant-eating animal life, upon which the Cryolophosaurus preyed. With the break-up of Gondwana, Allosaurus and Cryolophosaurus parted company, as Australia drifted northward toward the equator and Antarctica drifted southward to the South Pole.
Had the Australian polar dinosaurs and the Cryolophosaurus been discovered while he was alive, the embattled Alfred Wegener would have been delighted!
Approximately 100 million years ago, the Dinosaur Cove area (small red outlined boxes) at the southern end of Australia was well within the Antarctic Circle, more than 40 degrees closer to the South Pole than it is today.