Antarctica's modern-day icy climate betrays its lush, forested past, National Geographic reported Wednesday.
An expedition between November 2016 and January 2017 uncovered 13 fossil fragments from trees that thrived over 260 million years ago — before mass extinction — leading scientists to believe that at one point, Antarctica was actually covered in green. The period in question likely happened between 400 million and 14 million years ago, scientists estimate.
The 13 fossils are some of the best preserved plant life in the world, researchers on the expedition said. "Antarctica preserves an ecologic history of polar biomes that ranges for about 400 million years, which is basically the entirety of plant evolution," Erik Gulbranson, a paleoecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, told Life Science.
Researchers aim to pinpoint how these prehistoric plants were able to transition between seasons rapidly, surviving through dark winters and 24-hour sunshine. Modern plants take months to transition between seasons and couldn't survive a sudden plunge into freezing darkness.
The trans-national expedition team will return to the polar landscape in the next few weeks equipped with helicopters to help them access land closer to the fossil forests, Life Science reports.