Paleontologist Judith Pardo and Fiona at Tyndall Glacier, in Torres del Paine National Park.
Paleontologist Judith Pardo and Fiona at Tyndall Glacier, in Torres del Paine National Park.Cristina Gasco

At the beginning of this millennium, Judith Pardo (40 years old, Tierra del Fuego) devoted herself to a task that no one had done in Chile: searching for ichthyosaurs in Patagonia. A biology classmate showed her a photo of a skeleton of these enormous marine reptiles embedded in the ice field of the Tyndall Glacier, in Torres del Paine National Park, and Pardo wanted to see the find for herself. She went to the remote southern town and since then she has dedicated her life to studying the fossils she finds. In 2009, the paleontologist from the south of the world discovered the first pregnant female ichthyosaur, four meters long, born during the early Cretaceous (between 129 and 139 million years). Almost 13 years after the discovery, this May, Pardo and her team extracted Fionawhose body and embryos have been preserved complete.

The current researcher at the GAIA Antarctic Research Center of the University of Magallanes became a paleontologist when there were only a couple in the entire country. With no preparation laboratories or warehouses in the country, Pardo was forced to go to study in Germany. In the Stuttgart museum she worked with the collection of more than five thousand ichthyosaurs, several of them pregnant, but from a period prior to the specimens discovered in Chilean territory.

Grizz left Fiona at Tyndall Glacier, and in his absence no one continued his research. “I left with the anguish that such valuable and important material for world science was left there, without being able to work on it. That’s why I also decided to return to Chile. I felt the responsibility to continue with this issue, to investigate it and bring it to light”, he explains by phone from Punta Arenas.

Fiona’s image has gone around the world. Not so Pardo. “My participation in international conferences was no more. Now I am going to participate remotely so that I can allocate the funds to pay for the helicopter that brought the ichitosauria to Magellan,” she explains by phone. “All campaigns are a tremendous expense. For this year’s expedition — in which the ichtosauria was recovered — I spent practically all the resources of the year destined for the project”, he regrets. This is the first excavation financed by Chilean funds from the National Research and Development Agency of the Ministry of Science. Pardo’s team invested in excavation machinery, demolition machines, saws, a hangar, transport horses, among many other items.

In 2017, a student showed Pardo a rediscovered fossil: it was another pregnant female. As soon as he saw her, a storm of wind and hail began that made it impossible for him to gather information. In the midst of the hostile climate, with rocks up to 10 centimeters in diameter flying through the air, the paleontologist was only able to take the coordinates and a couple of images. “I wasn’t able to take in-focus photos because the wind was pushing me around and knocking the camera out of my hands,” she recalls. “When I saw the photographs I realized that I had embryos. They are much bigger than Fiona’s. They have teeth and everything. She is very nice that material, ”says the doctor. By 2023, her team wants to excavate this ichthyosauria, whose skeleton is complete, and would make it possible to compare the stages of pregnancy of the two females. However, she is in a very difficult place: “It is not certain that we will make it unless we take a whole army of people” to work.

Fiona is in the Natural History Museum of Río Seco, in Punta Arenas, 2,000 kilometers south of Santiago. The paleontologist hopes that the preparation phase will begin in July, which consists of removing the rocks stuck to the bones with electric machines. She estimates that it will take about three years. “The most important characteristics of the ichthyosaur are in the skull and in the anterior and posterior fins. Part of that skeleton is still contained in the rock. We are going to start the preparation for those parts to get results later. Later it will be the backbone and the embryos,” says Pardo, who wants people in the area to be able to see how they work removing the rock. “They have to be able to get to know it and appropriate it, because it is community material, and that encourages new generations to continue with this research.”

When Pardo left to study for his doctorate in Sciences at the University of Heidelberg, he had detected 24 ichthyosaurs in the glacier with his companions. Only in the expedition they carried out at the beginning of this year they added another 23, reaching 76 specimens. Most are still buried, exposed to erosion, which is slowly destroying them. The 90-kilometer-per-hour winds sweep away all the soft sediment, leaving behind solid rock, where the ichthyosaurs live. That makes them easier to find, but they are also subject to deterioration. “Literally the ichthyosaur is being swept away by the wind over the years. That is why we also have to rescue them and build deposits to take them there and house them”, points out the Magellan researcher.

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