An Alternative History of Antarctica

After mind-controlling fungi and hirsute crabs from other dimensions, I think it’s time for something cute.

Is it a mouse? Nope, it’s Australia’s mountain pygmy possum, which, in an awesome display of convergent evolution, has become mouse-like despite the fact that it’s a marsupial. It is one of very few animals to live at the top of the highest, coldest mountains on the continent, such as the Snowies in New South Wales, and has adapted to the alpine environment by becoming Australia’s only hibernating animal. The mountain pygmy possum is extremely endangered, partly because cold mountains are so rare on the world’s hottest continent… and on a swiftly warming planet . In fact, it was known only from fossils and was considered extinct until it was discovered alive in 1966. In a place with some of the world’s weirdest mammals, this very normal-looking creature is, in fact, one of its most unique.

And it’s that unique quality, the ability to survive freezing temperatures south of the equator, that make it the focus of today’s post. Because the continent I’m interested in isn’t Australia, but Antarctica.

Antarctica makes me nervous. It just sits there in the basement of the world, empty and frigid, eyeing the other continents, being envious of their rich terrestrial animal life, and sulking because it is always the last continent to be remembered in any list, and never gets invited to the Olympics. (Not even the Winter ones!) Occasionally it will send out an iceberg the size of Rhode Island in a passive-aggressive attempt to remind us that it’s still there, and could drown our asses. But Antarctica wasn’t always so vindictive, lonely, and bereft of life. Once upon a time, when it was attached to Australia and Africa, it was happy.

After Pangaea, the world’s land mass was split into two megacontinents: Laurasia (N. America, Europe, Asia) and Gondwanaland (S. America, Africa, Australia, Antarctica, and India). The southern continents shared many of the same plants and animals, which is why marsupials dominate the animal kingdom in both Australia and South America. Undoubtedly, Antarctica was teeming with its own unique plant and animal life. But when Gondwanaland broke up, Antarctica got the raw end of the deal, being shoved to the South Pole and covered over with ice. All terrestrial life forms died out, and their bones were buried under the snow and ground into powder by the voracious glacial stomach. We will never know what Antarctica looked like when it was a lush landscape filled with dinosaurs and mammals grazing its verdant temperate grasslands, instead of the bitter, barren place it is today.

But what if things had gone better for Antarctica? Indulge me in a little alternate prehistory fan fiction here. Let’s say Antarctica drifted South, but not so far South as to cover the pole or become enveloped by ice. What would it look like today? The landscape would look a great deal like the tundra of Northern Canada and Alaska, though perhaps instead of pines, the Antarctican forest would be dominated by evergreen podocarps, the leaves being browsed by Procoptodon, a giant short-faced kangaroo. (Further South, the procoptodon turns into something resembling a real-life tauntaun.) At the sunny Northern shores, austral bumblebees would visit the swaying protea flowers. The animal life, like Australia’s, would be mainly marsupial, but larger, to accommodate for the colder temperatures. There would be no ungulates like caribou or reindeer; instead, the grass would be grazed by herds of diprotodons, wombats the size of hippopotami. Flocks of flightless thunder birds, Dromornis, would pound the alpine grasses under their huge feet. Preying on the giant wombats and a great diversity of medium-sized woolly opossums would be a Tasmanian devil the size and color of polar bear, and a marsupial lion with the strongest bite of any predator in history. And underfoot, like the meek that inherit the Earth, is our little pygmy possum, watching out for Antarctic owls and predatory alpine cockatoos, wondering at the mad, feverish bounty of such a fertile world.

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About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

3 responses to “An Alternative History of Antarctica

  • Tatyana

    In my head, the ecosystem you’ve described is populated almost entirely by muppets. Your hypothetical Antarctica would make an excellent Jim Henson show.

    Also for some reason this is the first time I’m thinking about it, but you’re “what if” here so profoundly mucks with oceanic currents, weather patterns, etc. that it seems wrong to just re-imagine one continent. You’d have to look at the whole planet. We might still have dodos. Just putting that out there.

    • quantumbiologist

      We would definitely still have dodos, since we extincted them in the 17th century, and I’m talking about prehistory. If you have any insight as to how oceanic currents and weather patterns might have influenced local ecology 30 million years ago, when S. America broke off Antarctica, I’d love you to exposit on your area of expertise.

      • Tatyana

        “Let’s say Antarctica drifted South, but not so far South as to cover the pole or become enveloped by ice. What would it look like today?”

        That’s the part I was responding to, champ. And it’s not an area of expertise by any stretch, but I know enough about earth sciences to know your alternative continental placement messes with tradewinds, marine currents, migratory patterns, and so on–not to mention the historical ramifications, which (fine, fine, I’ll let you slide on this one) are probably way too complicated to address.

        I like the game you’re playing here, I just want it to go bigger. That’s all.

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