fossils

Dinosaur Hunting: Searching for a Prehistoric Melbourne

This is a guest post by zoology researcher Mackenzie Kwak.

If you went out today and asked a Melbournian where you could see a prehistoric creature, they would likely point you in the direction of the Melbourne Museum. Most people don’t realise that you can find all kinds of prehistoric animals and plants in the wilds of Victoria!

Miocene Rainforest (20 MYO)

In the past, Australia was not the dry, sunburnt landscape that we know today. Instead, during the early Miocene (20 MYA) the continent was blanketed in lush rainforests. The continent was inhabited by all manner of strange animals including the huge emu-like Genyornis, many species of rainforest koala and even flamingos where the inland deserts now lie. While most of these forests have now given way to arid landscapes, small pockets of primeval woods still remain and are even inhabited by some animals not unlike those which dwelled there 20 million years ago. The Toolangi State Forest is one of the few remaining places where you can step back in time and wander through a Miocene rainforest. The valleys are dominated by living fossil trees called southern beech (Nothofagus cunninghamii), one of the trees which dominated those ancient forest millions of years ago. If you have a careful eye, you may even spot a living fossil in the crystal clear streams that run through the forest - it’s a great place to spot platypuses, crayfish or worms in the shallow waters. The platypus is a relic from times long gone. Having shared Australia with the dinosaurs and remained relatively unchanged, they belong to one of the most ancient groups of mammals on earth: the Monotremes. So if you fancy searching for living fossils in a forest almost unchanged for 20 million years, Toolangi State Forest is a good start. Being only an hour’s drive from the CBD, it’s right on Melbourne’s doorstep!

Toolangi State Forest - a living example of Miocene rainforest. 

Toolangi State Forest - a living example of Miocene rainforest. 

Cretaceous Sea (80 MYO)

But maybe you want something much older? Perhaps you fancy the idea of swimming in a cretaceous sea with animals that shared those waters with huge marine reptiles like the Plesiosaurs or Ichthyosaurs. On a warm, still March evening, you can swim with a living fossil not unlike the extinct ammonites of old. The paper nautilus (Argonauta nodosa) is a relic from an ancient group. They are actually a type of mollusc with a pale, pearl-coloured shell, spending most of their lives drifting through the open ocean catching small animals to eat. While often shy, paper nautiluses will come close to shore on evenings during the late summer and early autumn months from January to March. This is the perfect time to come face to face with them in the shallow waters around Brighton Beach or along the Mornington Peninsula.

Carboniferous Wetland (300 MYO)

Perhaps the Mesozoic isn’t far enough back for you; maybe you'd prefer a visit to the Carboniferous era (300 MYA) when the Earth was dominated by giant arthropods. Fear not, because there is another place near Melbourne for you. It’s a place where you can see some of the earliest animals to take wing and some of the first freshwater ‘bugs’ to swim up the fresh waterways of the world. Some of these early arthropods to take to freshwater are the tadpole shrimp, which today can be found in ephemeral wetlands throughout Victoria. When the wetlands flood, the waters teem with these amazing creatures as they frantically search for a mate before the waters subside and the wetland dries out. When the water disappears, the adults die; however, buried in the dry earth are drought-resistant eggs which can last for years before the wetland fills once more and the cycle starts again. A great place to catch a glimpse of these living fossils is the Yea Wetlands north-east of Melbourne and the best time to search for them is during spring and autumn. With the help of a bucket and net, one can catch these crustaceans that can reach up to to 4 centimetres in length.  

Most entomologists, myself included, consider the dragonflies and damselflies (Odonata) to be some of the most extraordinary living fossils alive today. Not only are they basically unchanged since they first appeared during the Carboniferous era, but they are so ubiquitous that one can find them almost anywhere, from the middle of the CBD to the most remote forests.  The Yea Wetlands are a great place to see many different species and it is also believed to be the home of one of the rarest types in Australia: the endangered ancient greenling damselfly (Hemiphlebia mirabilis). The ancient greenling is the sole survivor of its family Hemiphlebiidae, an ancient group of primitive damselflies. Its tantalising metallic green body and agile aerial stunts make it an incredible living fossil to search for and observe in the wild! However, it has not been seen in Yea for 15 years and may be extinct there. So why not search it out and possibly rediscover a population of living fossils!

Dinosaur Floodplain (106 MYO)

You will indeed have a hard time finding a living dinosaur today! However, it is possible to find dinosaur bones. Close to Melbourne is one of the best dinosaur fossil beds in the country at Dinosaur Cove, west of Cape Otway. On the weathered cliffs overhanging the Great Southern Ocean, dinosaur bones from a number of species have been found, ranging from small herbivorous Leaellynasaura to the huge carnivorous relatives of the Australian Allosaurus. Fossils of ancient types of platypus have also been unearthed. During the time the fossils were laid down, the area was a great flood plain surrounded by polar forests filled with tree ferns. While dinosaur fossils are more rare, anyone can find the abundant shell fossils that are common along the beaches at Dinosaur Cove.

Leaellynasaura would once have found habitat not far from Cape Otway. 

Leaellynasaura would once have found habitat not far from Cape Otway. 

Serravallian Sea Shore (13 MYO)

While searching the rocky shoreline of Dinosaur Cove is one way to find fossils, a far cooler way is with a snorkel and flippers down at Fossil Beach on the Mornington Peninsula. Fossil Beach was originally a marshy estuary where the sea met the shore, and silt and nutrients washed down the rivers and streams to be deposited in the warm, shallow ocean that fringed Victoria. In this fertile habitat, all sorts of marine life were fossilised but most notably a great diversity of shells. Today, these shells are embedded in a mud matrix and can be seen exposed on the cliffs and hills which meet the ocean, as well as on the shallow seafloor around the shoreline. The best time to access this area is during low tide when the water is very clear and the seafloor is easy to reach. The mud matrix in which they are embedded is soft, making beautifully preserved fossils easy to pick up. While this is an ancient seafloor covered in long-extinct animals, you may even find some living fossils there too, as chitons (an ancient group of molluscs) are common on the rocks around fossil beach.

Chitons are an example of an ancient group of molluscs. 

Chitons are an example of an ancient group of molluscs. 

So next time you feel inspired to find some ancient creatures, don’t forget the fantastic forests, beaches and wetlands around Melbourne that harbour some amazing living fossils!


Please note: Collecting fossils on public land in Victoria is permitted, provided it is for non-commercial purposes. Please take care to minimise any possible damage to the surrounding environment when fossicking and refer to the Museum Victoria website for more information on safe fossicking around Melbourne and Victoria. 

All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

 

 

Melbourne’s Messengers of Deep Time

Imagining the intricacies of a mysterious, lost world within the confines of modern Melbourne living is a difficult feat for many, save for the scientists and passionate locals attempting to protect and discover more about Melbourne’s ancient, natural history.   

In the scorching sun of Sunday 22nd February, it wasn’t unusual to see a myriad of families, friends and individuals descending upon Ricketts Point Beach for a day in the water. It quickly became apparent though that most of, if not the entire crowd milling about the Beaumaris Lifesaving Club were there for another purpose altogether: to see, touch and learn about the very real fossils to be found at the historic Beaumaris Bay fossil site.  

Fossilised shark teeth displayed on the rocks of Beaumaris Bay. Image courtesy of http://www.weekendnotes.com

Fossilised shark teeth displayed on the rocks of Beaumaris Bay. Image courtesy of http://www.weekendnotes.com

With a range of both amateur and professional fossickers prepared to speak later in the afternoon, the event began with fossil collector Richard Casley encouraging children and adults alike to search for some previously-prepared fossils in a large container under the marquee. For both participants and spectators, it was an entertaining and rewarding experience to watch, as kids of all ages attempted to find and then identify the different fossils. Richard was kind enough to help most of them with their identifications, expertly listing what seemed to be some of the more common fossils to be found in these parts: mako shark teeth, whale bones and the beautiful Levinia heart-shaped urchin, to name a few. 

Following the enthusiasm shown during this first activity, it wasn’t much of a surprise to see kids with display boxes full of fossils making their way to the microphone to discuss their own findings from Beaumaris and other parts of the world. One boy even stumped the visiting palaeontologists with a discovery from the Beaumaris site that was potentially the fossil of an ancient crocodile jaw – a significant find for the area if proven to be true. It was amazing to hear that over 5000 fossils from this site alone have been donated to Museum Victoria, including those found by many eager, amateur collectors. The age of Beaumaris fossils generally extends from four million years to as far back as 10 million years ago – a mind-boggling figure to grasp when one thinks of the broad scope of human development along the Bayside area over only the past century or so. 

A box of wonders: a fossicker displays their own private collection.

A box of wonders: a fossicker displays their own private collection.

To the average person, however, the activities of the first part of the day may have seemed like a bit of harmless, child-like fun; fossicking, for the most part, appeared to be all about getting sandy at the beach and digging around for a few ‘rocks’. It was therefore the latter portion of the event that perhaps demonstrated the true value of this local fossil site and the specimens found there, beginning with Professor Tim Flannery stepping up to tell of his own experiences fossicking in the area. 

Tim himself grew up not far from Beaumaris in Sandringham, and therefore shares a very personal connection with the area beyond his own professional interests. A trained palaeontologist, Tim seemed keen to communicate the importance of defending the Beaumaris fossil site from pollution and development pressures; he also sadly admits that his own generation has not done as much as they could have in attempting to protect the site. Passing on this fact to the many intent children gathered in front of him, Tim encourages each of them to “dive into the water of [their] own imagination…” and to remember that the lost world palaeontologists have discovered via the Beaumaris site is a world that “really did exist”. His short but memorable speech brought to mind images of the many fossils discussed that day as actual living things, inhabiting the sea floor of our very own Port Philip Bay once upon a time. 

Professor John Buckeridge was next up to speak, enthusiastically launching into a description of the various fossil types to be found in the Beaumaris area, of which he is a local resident. Explaining the significance of the high number of invertebrate fossils found at Beaumaris, John specifically mentioned two types that are of particular paleontological importance: echinoids (sea urchins) and brachiopods (shellfish-like creatures similar to clams and mussels, although unrelated). He also reiterated the importance of protecting the area from inappropriate development that could possibly compromise the site and any yet-to-be-discovered fossils; there is a chance that many specimens could indeed be “lost forever” if further measures are not taken to preserve the location. For him, “development is not really an option here, but a world heritage site is”, the latter of which is a classification yet to be implemented. 

However, perhaps the most striking speech was that given by Erich Fitzgerald, doctor and curator of palaeontology at Museum Victoria, who painted an unforgettable picture of life in Port Phillip Bay and the Melbourne area before human habitation. Like Tim, Erich explained how his passion for fossils began at an early age: a common theme demonstrated throughout the event itself, as the crowd seemed to be largely made up of families and children. Erich’s professional interests lean more towards vertebrate fossils than those of invertebrates. With this in mind, he was able to portray a slightly more relatable picture of a lost marine world filled with ancient whales, dugongs, seals, penguins larger than the Emperor species, as well as huge sharks, including the largest to ever swim the Earth’s oceans: the magnificent Megalodon. These creatures existed in “a time before the wheel” and certainly before Facebook, peak hour and the towering skyscrapers of our modern city. Perhaps most significantly, this ancient time involved “a world without us”, and is a period that can perhaps only be re-discovered through the fossils found at Beaumaris. With a warmer climate and sea shores at least five kilometres further inland than they are today, Erich paints this world as one that is both awe-inspiring and mysterious. 

A fossilised whale vertebrae uncovered right on Melbourne's doorstep.

A fossilised whale vertebrae uncovered right on Melbourne's doorstep.

Despite the potential for the Beaumaris site to continue to reveal more about Melbourne’s amazing past, Erich is the third speaker of the day to emphasise the dire need to protect this area for the sake of future generations, research and indeed the planet. He lovingly describes the fossil site as “the jewel in the crown of Bayside and…Melbourne”, the heritage of which belongs not just to Melbournians, but “to the entire world”. It is indeed true that “the great days of discovering are not yet done” when it comes to the many fossils still buried deep in the sands of Beaumaris Bay. Erich also explains that this important site could be providing us with fossils that demonstrate the potential effects of climate change, and is therefore a haven of information that could benefit us in the here and now. 

Finally, it was time for both Vicki Karalis, President of the Sandringham Foreshore Association, and Felicity Frederico, Mayor of Bayside, to close the formal part of the day. Despite the heat, it wasn’t difficult to see that it had been an engaging event for both children and adults. As Erich Fitzgerald meaningfully described, we are lucky to have a world-class fossil site so close to our city, yet we must continue to put more and more effort into protecting it from surrounding development – or else, sadly, countless “messengers of deep time” will either be damaged or lost forever in the process.  

If you would like to visit the Beaumaris Bay fossil site, it is located off Beach Road in the suburb of Beaumaris, not far from Ricketts Point. Refer to here for a more exact location of the fossil site along the beach.

For more information on the site, surrounding area, and news pertaining to its potential development, visit the following websites:

-Sandringham Foreshore Association

Marine Care Ricketts Point 

Beaumaris Conservation Society 

- "No Marina" Petition Website

-Beaumaris Motor Yacht Squadron

Banner image courtesy of Museum Victoria