Scott's South Pole expedition science legacy

17 January 2012

Today, 100 years ago, Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his polar party reached the South Pole in Antarctica. The gruelling journey took 2 and a half months and was an incredible feat of human endurance. The team paid the ultimate price and lost their lives as they tried to return home.

Brittle star Terra Nova specimen - it uses its long flexible arms to capture prey.

Brittle star, Astrotoma agassizii, collected on the Terra Nova expedition. This species occurs throughout Antarctica. It uses its long flexible arms to capture prey.

Less well-known are the remarkable scientific achievements of Scott’s Terra Nova expedition and these are explored in the Natural History Museum's Scott’s Last Expedition exhibition opening this Friday.

The Terra Nova expedition had the largest team of scientists that had ever visited the Antarctic continent. The team of 12 scientists included 2 biologists, 3 geologists and 1 meteorologist.

Specimens collected

The team brought back specimens in crates, jars and bottles, representing over 2,000 different species of animals and plants, with more than 400 new to science

More than an incredible 40,000 Terra Nova specimens are looked after at the Museum and they are studied by scientists from all over the world.

Antarctic studies
Emperor penguin egg collected at Cape Crozier

1 of 3 emperor penguin eggs collected on the Winter Journey in 1911. One egg is on display in Scott's Last Expedition.

The scientists studied Antarctic wildlife on land and in the water. They surveyed new terrains, studied glaciology, geology and the effects of atmospheric electricity. 

They produced the longest unbroken record of meteorological data for Antarctica, which remains the baseline for modern records today.

Emperor penguin eggs

Expedition members Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard travelled in the middle of the freezing Antarctic winter to the emperor penguin colony at Cape Crozier to collect eggs. One of these eggs will be on display in the exhibition. 

They believed that the study of emperor penguin embryos may shed light on the evolutionary link between birds and reptiles. 

Known as the Winter Journey, temperatures dropped so low that the men's sleeping bags were constantly frozen and it was reported that their teeth cracked!

Extinct plant fossil
Close-up of fossil leaf Glossopteris indica from Antarctica

Close-up of fossil leaf of Glossopteris indica collected on the Terra Nova expedition. It was one of the earliest pieces of evidence that forests once covered Antarctica.

An important specimen found near Scott’s body, and on display in the exhibition, is the extinct plant fossil Glossopteris indica. 

It was the first time it had been found on mainland Antarctica.

As well as showing that there must have been forests there in the past, Glossopteris helped provide evidence that Antarctica had once been part of the ancient supercontinent Gondwana.

Scott's Last Expedition exhibition

Visitors to the Museum can explore more of the Terra Nova science when Scott's Last Expedition opens this Friday. 

The scientific specimens are reunited for the first time with real objects used by Scott and his team in the exhibition. 

Captain Scott (centre) and crew, 13 April 1911.

Captain Scott (centre) and crew, 13 April 1911. © H Ponting photograph, Pennell collection Canterbury Museum NZ, 1975.289.28 (detail)

The different tales of human endurance are examined and visitors can enter a life-size representation of Scott's hut, which still exists in Antarctica today.

Elin Simonsson, the exhibition curator says, 'Antarctic science has never been so important, and the Terra Nova expedition specimens in the Museum’s collections are snapshots of Antarctica at that particular time, which are available to scientists for research today and in the future.’

Scott's Last Expedition is open from 20 January to 2 September 2012 at the Natural History Museum.

  • by Yvonne Da Silva
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Scott's Last Expedition book

From stunning photos of landscapes, equipment and daily life in the hut, to diary extracts recounting incredible feats of endurance, get the full story in our new book Scott's Last Expedition.

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