Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Return to Dinosaur Cove

This past Sunday (June 13), we decided to go to “church.” The place was worship, though, was not a building, but more like a cemetery. It was the final resting ground for the remains of many animals from a world 106 million years in the past. (And no, it was not a “Lost World,” because people found the bloody thing.) This place was named Dinosaur Cove, and it is where the study of dinosaurs in Australia underwent a renaissance that began in the 1980s and is still ongoing.

Dinosaur Cove, Victoria, the place where Australian dinosaurs became better known to the world.

So I was very pleased to have been taken there by one of the key people in this slice of paleontological history, Tom Rich, who along with Patricia (Pat) Vickers-Rich started the investigation of this site for its dinosaurs and other fossils. We were accompanied by Greg Denney, an Australian who witnessed it from the beginning; Greg’s father David, was a local farmer who provided considerable material and moral assistance to Tom, Pat, and the many volunteers dig site through the years

This was not just any dinosaur dig, but one that involved a huge amount of physical labor under unusual conditions. How unusual? Well, if pressed to name the most famous dinosaur dig sites in the world, the list will consist mostly of locations in arid environments. In the U.S., Ghost Ranch in New Mexico for Triassic dinosaurs; Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and Como Bluff, Wyoming for Jurassic dinosaurs; and Egg Mountain near Choteau, Montana for Cretaceous dinosaurs. Outside of the U.S., Dinosaur Provincial Park in Canada is in arid badlands, and of course the dinosaurs of Mongolia are not exactly in a tropical rainforest, either. Dinosaur Cove, as you can see, is on a seashore. And this site was not just on a seashore, but one with dangerous waves and very hard Cretaceous rocks.

The view of Dinosaur Cove that dig-site volunteers would have seen every day. Note the waves covering the marine platform, which would become very distracting, especially if you were placed between these rocks and a hard place. Which, actually, consisted of more rocks.

So when Tim Flannery, Michael Archer, and Tom Rich first noticed dinosaur bones here in 1980, and later assessments showed it was a definite bone bed, its location on a rocky coast reality sunk in that this would be no “ordinary” dinosaur dig, and would require extraordinary imagination and methods for extracting the bones.

Tom Rich looking out onto Dinosaur Cove Present, remembering Dinosaur Cove Past.

The bones were likely deposited in an abandoned river channel, or oxbow, which in Australia is called a billabong, a word that originates from the indigenous language of the Wiradhuri in present-day New South Wales.

A dead Leaellynasaura, about to become part of the fossil record as it lies alongside a freezing billabong 106 million years ago. Gorgeous artwork by Peter Trusler.

Tom Rich pointing to the same horizon of the bone bed. Alas, the bones only went so far.

The story of Dinosaur Cove is told very well in Tom and Pat’s book, Dinosaurs of Darkness, so I won’t retell it here, Suffice it to say that it involved the cooperation of many dedicated, hard-working volunteers, hand and power tools, explosives, and much more to get the bones. Tons of sedimentary rocks were mined from the site to get what bones were there, and volunteers had to use a rope to more easily get up and down the outcrop from their camp, which meant every day spent digging was sandwiched between difficult hikes.

The way up and down from Dinosaur Cove, made easier by a little bit of rope. Greg Denney for scale (just to show our lives were not hanging from a thread).

All of this effort was done to mine the bone bed, much of which was best accomplished by making a tunnel (hence the heavy equipment and blasting). When the last of the rock-breaking and fossil hunting was ceased in 1994, the tunnel was sealed with concrete and other barriers to prevent further access.

Grey Denney standing in front of the former tunnel of Dinosaur Cove. Whatever bones were left behind are now buried again.

A plaque now commemorates the dig and the institutions that supported it, including National Geographic and (not surprisingly) an Australian company that makes mining tools, Atlas Copco.

Me in front of the plaque at Dinosaur Cove from my first visit to Dinosaur Cove, in 2006. What you don’t see is my left hand, which it holding onto a corner of concrete to keep from slipping down the rock and into the nearby sea. Photo by Ruth Schowalter.

Although no paleontological work is currently being done at Dinosaur Cove – well, except for the trace fossils I found that there, which will be reported some day in a peer-reviewed paper – discoveries from there still make themselves known until years later. So many fossils were collected and cataloged, not all of them have been studied in detail. Many fossils have sat in the Museum of Victoria for more than twenty years, such as the recent revelation that one bone was from a tyrannosaur, the first known from Australia.

For example, I am personally grateful to these volunteers for contributing to one of my recent scientific successes, too. The oldest fossil crayfish in the Southern Hemisphere came from here, recovered and catalogued in 1987 and 1989. Who knows what other evolutionary sermons may come from these stones? We shall see!