In a laboratory coated in dust hundreds of millions of years in the making, Akiko Shinya delicately scrapes at the object in front of her, as though removing pollen from a bumblebee’s hind leg.
Shinya’s dentist-like tool whines like a squadron of mosquitoes. Tiny flecks of ash-gray rock dance in the light of her desk lamp.
The work is nearly done. Two and half years ago, the four dumbbell-shaped vertebrae and a section of ribs from the carnivorous dinosaur at her work station were encased in 700 pounds of rock cut from a frigid mountainside at the bottom of the Earth — Antarctica — and hauled out in a steel net dangling beneath a helicopter.
Next year, The Field Museum, where Shinya is the chief preparator of vertebrate fossils, is set to open a first-of-its-kind exhibition that will tell the story of a time when dinosaurs once roamed a verdant landscape — one that’s now buried beneath a mile-thick sheet of ice. It also presents the extraordinary explorers and scientists who’ve plucked fossils from one of the coldest, most isolated places on Earth.
That story began in 1902, when a Swedish sailing ship voyaging toward what its expedition leader called the “great unknown,” reached Snow Hill Island at the tip of the eastern Antarctic peninsula. Sea ice later crushed the wooden ship, and the crew had to be rescued, but not before collecting fossils — including several clams and part of a shrimp — that for the first time suggested Antarctica was not always so forbidding a place.
Those explorers knew nothing of how continents, resting on massive plates, spread apart and collide — leading to vastly changing environments across the span of time.
“Everyone thinks of Antarctica today as this very remote place with these bizarre creatures like penguins, Weddell seals and leopard seals,” says Peter Makovicky, the Field’s chief dinosaur scientist. “But if you turn back the clock geologically, you’d find a continent that is forested and that has animals and is fairly similar to what is also present on other continents.”
In the early 1990s, while 13,000 feet up Mount Kirkpatrick in the central Transantarctic Mountains, an Ohio State University geologist looking for volcanic rocks stumbled upon a huge thigh bone — a discovery that would lead to the recovery of the region’s largest-known meat-eating dinosaur, Cryolophosaurus, and the centerpiece of the Field’s coming exhibit.
The creature lived 190 million years ago, weighed about 1,000 pounds and had a pompadour-like crest that paleontologists say might have helped members of the species recognize one another.
The dinosaur became popularly known as “Elvisaurus.”
“That was in the popular press. It was never scientifically called Elvisaurus,” says the goateed Makovicky, 45, who exudes more of a laid-back bartender vibe than that of a tearing-through-the-jungle Indiana Jones, the movie creation to whom he sometimes is compared.
These are hectic days for Makovicky. In a sunlit room on the third floor of the museum — off-limits to the public — dozens of fossil fragments from two Cryolophosaurus specimens found in Antarctica lie on a 15-foot-long table. The fragments will be part of the exhibition. Among other things, it’s Makovicky’s job to make sure that its designers know exactly how each bone should connect to the others.
In another part of his office — cluttered with buckets of rocks, his young children’s art work and toy dinosaurs — a three-dimensional image of the famed Tyrannosaurus rex Sue, the museum’s star attraction, rotates on his computer screen. Makovicky is overseeing Sue’s imminent transfer from the main hall to an upstairs gallery space.
Then, in December, Makovicky will head back to Antarctica in search of more fossils that might end up being part of the Antarctic exhibition.
As the crow flies, it’s about 9,000 miles from Chicago to Mount Kirkpatrick in the central Transantarctic Mountains. There are no direct flights.
In 2010, when Makovicky made his first trip there, he and his team flew from New Zealand to Antarctica in a U.S. Air Force cargo plane, landing five hours later on the ice at McMurdo Station, a U.S. research outpost at the southern tip of Ross Island. To reach the base camp, it’s another 1½ hours on a smaller cargo plane, flying above a landscape of wind-sculpted snow and ice that’s pierced here and there by coal-colored mountain peaks.
“Even for someone who is used to thinking of millions of years and continents moving and mountains being uplifted, to sort of sit there and look out at this icy landscape and think, ‘These things I’ve collected, they lived in a lush temperate rain forest,’ is kind of staggering,” Makovicky says.
But in Antarctica, quiet reflection is a luxury. Even in the continent’s summer season, high temperatures at the base camp — little more than a collection of tents and an ice runway — never rise above freezing. And at the fossil quarry, 13,000 feet up on the side of Mount Kirkpatrick, temperatures routinely hover near minus-30 degrees Celsius, or 22 below zero Fahrenheit.
“It’s always cold,” Makovicky says.
Visitors are issued survival kits and taught how to build a snow shelter, which resembles an ice coffin, in case of a whiteout. It’s too cold for sweat. So scientists must pay close attention to dehydration.
A helicopter carries teams to the quarry. Once there, they have only each other and the howling wind for company.
Forget what you’ve seen in the movies about dinosaur fossil-hunters. There are no brushes or trowels in Antarctica. The rock is concrete-hard. Gas-powered jackhammers and rock saws rattle and growl all day.
“It’s very exacting work,” Makovicky says. “You’re at 13,000 feet. The air is very thin, and it’s very cold, and you’re using these rather heavy power tools.”
The survival kit contains a tent and sleeping bags in case a snowstorm sweeps in and the helicopter can’t make it back up the mountain.
During a seven-week trip in 2010, Makovicky’s team hauled nine blocks of rock, weighing between 100 and 700 pounds each, to a waiting helicopter. The specimens were carried off the mountain, loaded into crates and flown to the United States.
“The hard part is explaining to people that the work doesn’t consist of going to Antarctica, or wherever, collecting the dinosaur and then you’re done,” Makovicky says. “No, that’s just the beginning. And that’s the fun part.”
A bell — the kind found on a hotel reception desk — sits just inside the door to the lab at The Field Museum where Shinya works. A handwritten sign encourages visitors to use it.
Even for Shinya, who has worked at the museum for 16 years, the racket from all the electric saws and scrapers can be maddening.
“There are some times when I feel like: ‘Please shut it off,’” says Shinya. “But what are you going to do?”
Housekeepers vacuum the lab floor weekly. You’d never know it. A thin layer of dust covers everything.
When Shinya is scraping away at a fossil in the museum’s public lab, she is so painstaking she seems not to be moving at all.
At times, she says, “People think we are statues. They sometimes think we are wax figures on display. All of a sudden, if we move or we look up, they would jump.”
In early October, she was removing the final traces of rock from the section of four Cryolophosaurus vertebrae and some ribs Makovicky and his team cut from Mount Kirkpatrick six years ago. She’s been working on the huge block since February 2016. One particularly smooth, well-preserved vertebra took her about a day and a half to clean. Another, a mosaic of crushed fossil, took two months.
“It was very, very slow-going,” she says.
As a rule, for every hour digging fossils out of the ground, paleontologists will say, it’s another 100 hours cleaning them up in the lab.
What makes it worthwhile, Shinya says, is the possibility of stumbling across something unexpected — like the perfectly preserved Cryolophosaurus tooth she found embedded in the block in the spring of 2016.
Even better, she says, is the chance to open a window into a long-forgotten world.
“It’s always fascinating to realize we are the first ones to see this 195-million-year-old fossil that was living so long ago,” she says.
The vast majority of the world’s inhabitants will never even think about traveling to Antarctica.
“It’s like people who’ve gone down to the bottom of the ocean or to the moon,” says Tom Skwerski, who’s overseeing the Antarctic exhibition.
For the past 1½ years, Skwerski has been working to figure out how to bring the frozen continent to Chicago — inside a 7,500-square-foot gallery space — and then transport people 190 million years back to a time when forests, ferns and rivers covered the landscape.
“I don’t think our visitors really think about that, if they know at all, that there were dinosaurs roaming around, and it wasn’t a T. rex in a parka,” Skwerski says.
T. rex wouldn’t arrive for another 135 million years.
A veil of mist — separating present-day from prehistoric Antarctica — was an early nonstarter.
“You get leaks, you get mold,” says Skwerski.
No cold chamber, either.
“Any cold that we could do would never be as cold as Antarctica,” he says.
Big, red tent “portals” will lead visitors from one part of the expedition to another.
There will be a mock-up of a plane — the kind that carries scientists and freight and lands on ice — and an interactive exhibit that encourages visitors to figure out what to wear when venturing out in frigid cold in search of fossils.
“We want to encourage people to explore the different types of clothing,” Skwerski says. “I want to give people the opportunity to experiment — and possibly fail.”
Perhaps a bad choice would result in an imagined death. Skwerski hasn’t decided yet.
The Cryolophosaurus — the top predator in its world — will be the showstopper, including the fossils and a full skeletal reconstruction.
There are a couple of wild cards, too.
In December, Makovicky is heading back to Antarctica for two months. What if he makes an extraordinary discovery?
“Actually, we haven’t talked about it,” Skwerski says. “I don’t know.”
And what if Skwerski has a question for Makovicky while he’s at the bottom of the world?
“It’s not horrible timing,” Skwerski says with a nervous laugh that hints at the responsibility of having to pull together all of the pieces on time and within the $2 million budget. “But there are things like the pose of Cryolophosaurus. [Makovicky] may want to weigh in on that or the finish of the skin. I hope we’ll be able to get in touch with him at least via email … and that he won’t be totally off the grid for two months.”