Wednesday, June 2, 2010

In the Land of Koolasuchus

Our goal this morning was to walk the rocks of two fossil localities, Potters Hill and Rowell’s Beach, which are both just east of San Remo, Victoria. The weather was excellent, with mild temperatures, a slight breeze off the sea, and mostly blue skies. We threaded our way along the platforms and between boulders below sheer cliffs, and crossed several beaches, one of which was probably Rowell’s. At the end of the morning, the rising tide and waves motivated us to move upslope about 60 meters (200 feet), a nice bit of exercise that lent to some spectacular views of the coastal exposures.

As we walked across these rocks, we were very much aware that they had yielded more than a few bones of an extraordinary fossil amphibian, Koolasuchus cleelandi. This monster newt – well, actually it’s a labyrinthodont, but it’s just fun to say “monster newt” – was nearly 4 meters (13 feet) long, and was likely the top predator of its fresh-water environments. Think of it as the ecological equivalent of an alligator, only it was an amphibian, and living in a near-polar environment.

Koolasuchus cleelandi, as depicted by Australian artíste par excellence, Peter Trusler.

It also was not supposed to be here at this time. Its lineage everywhere outside of Australia had died out nearly 200 million years ago, during the Triassic Period. So when the first bones were found here in rocks from 115-120 million years ago and later identified as belonging to a labyrinthodont, it was a shocking find: the temporal equivalent of finding a Late Cretaceous dinosaur alive today.

Koolasuchus cleelandi is named in honor of two of Victoria’s best fossil hunters, Lesley Kool (who is also the site manager at Dinosaur Dreaming), and Mike Cleeland.

Lesley Kool (on the right), flanked from right to left by Mary Walters and Ruth Schowalter (my wife, frequent field companion, and biggest supporter). Behind them is Flat Rocks, Victoria; photo taken in May 2006. Why the cleaning implements? It’s a long story.

Mike Cleeland (far right – not politically, though), with me (far left – yes, politically) and Chris Consoli (former Monash Univeristy graduate student, now Dr. Consoli) in the middle. Photo taken in May 2006 at Dinosaur Cove, Victoria.

The remains of Koolasuchus are normally found in coarser-grained sedimentary rocks here, such as pebbly conglomerates. This coincidence led to speculations that it lived in fast-flowing streams, similar to modern-day hellbender salamanders (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) in my home state of Georgia. I could just imagine this gigantic predator sitting on a stream bottom, facing upstream, and just opening its mouth, catching any fish, crayfish, or anything else smaller than it (in other words, nearly everything).

Alas, we did not find any other Koolasuchus bones today, and only a few trace fossils were documented along the way. We did encounter some fantastic scenery, though. So here are a few photos and stitched panoramas, just to give you a sense of what we saw this morning. Not every day has to result in the discovery of a never-before-known fossil, but they can be days filled with an appreciation of geologic beauty.

Tomorrow, more about our latest field endeavors, whether we find anything or not!


  1. Oh my beloved scientist! I adore your paleontology! You gave us a special treat today by introducing the artwork of Peter Trusler! Thank you--how fascinating it is how his creative work gives breath and life to something that we other mere humans see in gray or whatever the fossil remains look like. The fact that Peter can envision the creature and the environment never fails to amaze me.

    Also dearest Ichnoman, I love the people photos that you provide along with the vast haunting landscapes. Paleontology is peopled with characters, and these particular characters are devotees to the paleo past! Well done Chiboogamoo!

  2. I am known world-wide for my affinity for Eye of Newt, and I shudder to think of the spells I could cast with just one eye from the Monster Newt you saw evidence of today, which fact I made note of over on Facebook. It is a day which shall live on in (in)famy!!!

  3. Thanks to both of you - Hallelujah and Trixie - for your support of paleontology, art, people, and necromancy. Those all go together naturally in my mind! (Well, actually, maybe it's unnatural if it's in my mind...)