Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Not-So-Rotten Day at Rotten Point: Part II

(In Part I of this two-part series, I related how our field party, while scouting the Victoria coast on June 22, was confronted with the horror of an inadequate outcrop, which necessitated drastic measures: hiking off-trail to reach a more substantial outcrop. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen)

It turned out that the bush-bashing needed to reach the main outcrop at Rotten Point was well worth the effort, although I will not pretend to speak for my field companions. Within only 10 minutes or so, I found many small, invertebrate trace fossils (mostly burrows) in the vertical cliff, and my ever-eager apprentice, Greg Denney, along with the keen-eyed Ruth, likewise spotted more. One of these trace fossils, however, was one I had not seen anywhere else in the Cretaceous of Victoria after nearly a month of field work. (Wish I could show it to you now, but we have that little thing in science called “peer review” that I like to respect.)

Avast! There be trace fossils in these Cretaceous rocks! Prepare to be described! Arrr! (Photo by Ruth Schowalter.)

So I stayed behind to document it and other trace fossils there – aided by my faithful field assistant, Ruth – while our three companions scouted ahead to the east, to Rotten Point proper, which was where the outcrop and its broken bits projected into the sea.

From about 200 meters (650 feet) away, Ruth and I watched Greg, Mike, and Tom sit down onto some rocks and reach into their packs for sandwiches. Ah yes, that hallowed tradition in field geology when one nearly forgets the passage of the morning, only to be reminded by your growling stomach: time for a field lunch! After performing some tricky moves over huge, slick boulders along the shore, we soon joined them, and then enjoyed a fantastic show of massive waves smash against the rocks just below us.

Let’s find a nice, quiet, peaceful place for a field lunch, shall we? Oh, this spot looks lovely! What, you think those waves are a little too close? Nonsense! Would you like a cuppa tea?

Ruth then snapped a photo of us looking prayerful at lunch, but I was actually explaining how burrowing bivalves move, and what sorts of trace fossils such behaviors might leave in the geologic record.

Showing reverence for trace fossils made by burrowing bivalves, a common practice in The Church of Ichnology. Notice also that Mike Hall (right) is living up to his nickname “Sandwich Hand,” which he earned while doing field work with me on the North Slope of Alaska in 2007. But that is another story. (Photo by Ruth Schowalter.)

So with sustenance and entertainment out of the way, we considered how to get out of our present location while also accessing more Cretaceous rocks just to the east of us. Why not just backtrack, retracing our steps taken to get down to that spot? Well, in a word, no. After the hard scrabble through coastal scrub and otherwise rough terrain to get where we were, no one suggested backtracking, even as a joke. This meant we would have to go around Rotten Point on the marine platform. Remember the huge waves mentioned previously? Those potential impediments did not magically diminish as soon as we made our decision, and would have to be taken into full consideration.

Timing and teamwork would be essential for achieving our goal. Although contrived TV shows in the U.S. often laud a romanticized ideal of “rugged individualism,” in most real situations the adoption of this attitude is hopelessly naïve and downright stupid. (I know, what a big shock that “reality” shows often have very little basis in the commodity they claim to reflect.) Nine times out of ten, you make it through such tough situations in the field through mateship: setting aside heroics and just watching out for your field companions by living attentively and unselfishly in the present.

The rock platform extended a thin lip of support over the ocean, with a slightly incised, v-shaped gap (one long step across) and about 10 meters (33 feet) of air in between the rock and ocean. One misstep, and it would be a quick descent to the water. Which would be fine if we were all outfitted with scuba gear, neoprene wetsuits, and dive masks. Instead, we were carrying field packs, wearing heavy boots, and a most of us had donned stylish hats (look for that picture at the end).

For added ballast, my pack contained a first-aid kit, water bottle, digital calipers, and an emergency blanket, the last of which would be great for keeping someone warm if they were pulled out of the ocean alive, which in this case was not likely to happen.

Backpacks filled with field gear make for poor flotation devices. I’m just saying… (Photo by Ruth Schowalter.)

I briefly thought about my digital camera in its small case and slung on a strap across my torso, and wondered if the memory card would still store and transfer photos of my newly found trace fossils after a good dunking, just in case someone else later found my kelp-wrapped camera without me. After all, science must go on, mishaps aside.

Someone had to go first. Greg did, as he had the greatest amount of experience at both getting safely across Victorian coastal outcrops and guiding people on such challenging terrain. So he easily went across the gap. For him, this really was a piece of cake, unlike other metaphorical confectionaries we had already been served earlier that day. Mike Hall, the oldest member of our party (72 years young), went next. His many years of geological field experience in Tasmania and other parts of the world meant this was no big deal to him either. So a few well-placed steps, along with a helping hand from Greg, placed him on the other side, too.

Now it was Ruth’s turn, and as she glanced down at the roiling ocean through the window provided by a lack of rock, she burst into laughter. “Is that nervous laughter I hear?” Greg asked her. “Yes!”, she responded immediately. (At the time, I did not know that Greg had also told her earlier about the 5-meter (16-foot) long great white sharks that prowl the waters just offshore, which likely would elicited a high-pitched giggle from me, too.) But having never done anything quite like this before, she did not know enough to be as petrified as the rocks around her, and went into decisive motion. With our encouragement and Greg and Mike lending a hand or two on the other side, she made it there quite handily, and waved to me from the other side, relief suffusing her face.

A nonverbal acknowledgement from Ruth of having just overcome a geologically and oceanographically posed challenge. And that’s Dinosaur Cove in the background. “Pretty cool” is the colloquial phrase that comes to mind.

Tom was the opposite of Ruth in experience on the Victoria coast, having done this sort of thing many, many times, so he crawled over on all fives, with his butt as his anchor. Again, Greg and Mike coaxed him over, and all was well; the relief he wore was more veiled, but still there.

I was last, and although I could have just jumped across, that would have been exceedingly idiotic, which I can be without much effort, but felt it wasn’t appropriate this time. Instead, I took slow, methodical, and tiny steps, angling my feet and body into the outcrop to my left to engage more friction. (Oh, how boring our lives would be without friction, for which we should give thanks every day.) Although the wet sandstone seemed free of slick algal films, I knew that appearances were not everything, and was taking nothing for chance. Ten seconds, and I was over, too. No worries, mate.

Amazingly, we were all now in Dinosaur Cove. Rotten Point marks the westernmost boundary of this small embayment named by Tom Rich back in 1980, which became the site for some of the most significant dinosaur discoveries not just in Victoria, but the rest of Australia. Nonetheless, we could not dwell on this fact for long, as we still had to make our way through house-sized boulders to the marine platform in the cove interior, the safest place in the cove.

The passage to safety in Dinosaur Cove through a “cave” made by two massive boulders. Note my field companions ahead of me, inspecting the outcrop for bones and trace fossils. Or are they just shadows on the wall of the “cave”?

Nearly everyone noticed small invertebrate trace fossils along the way and pointed them out to me, and I made sure to document these as well. The trace of a dig-site volunteer was also there, telling us about the presence of a “Fossil Rock.” I was informed by Tom Rich that this was the trace of Helen Wilson, and was probably rendered in the late 1980s. So if you’re reading this, Helen, good on you for leaving such a long-lasting trace!

A fossil is normally also a rock, but a rock is not always a fossil. Please discuss amongst yourselves, but not for too long.

Our way out was up from Dinosaur Cove was on a rock face on the well-worn route used by thousands of dig-site volunteers and visitors to Dinosaur Cove since the mid-1980s, then along an trail that was overgrown in places, clear in others. Just like our day in the field, and just like life, I guess. At the end of the trail was our field vehicle, and we all happily posed for pictures, grateful that our camaraderie had gotten one another through the rough spots, with a little bit of science coming out of it, too. Best of all, we had even kept our respective hats. It doesn’t get much better than that.

A happy end to a demanding day in the field, helped considerably by the forcefulness of the sign, which also prevented any accidental shootings. (Photo by Ruth Schowalter.)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Not-So-Rotten Day at Rotten Point: Part I

Tuesday, June 22, was a day in the field that reminded us geologically oriented folks why we do this. Yes, it’s partly for the increased knowledge that may grow out of our daring to venture from behind our computer screens, travel long distances, and look at real rocks. But it’s also because of how it often leads to a satisfaction that comes with accepting what might come your way, as well as surpassing the mental and physical demands of field research. Yet to most people outside of geology and paleontology, our endeavors sometimes look like sheer madness. Oh well: their loss.

But before I relate some of the escapades of that memorable day, a brief review of the days immediately preceeding is needed to get readers up to date on the sequence of events. Field work resumed in the Otway Ranges (“Cretaceous West”) on Sunday, June 20, after a four-day break in Melbourne, during which my wife Ruth arrived from the U.S. This reentry to the field was a gentle one, though, as three of us (Tom Rich, Ruth, and me), during the drive back to Apollo Bay, were able to just pull up to a roadside parking lot, take a few steps down a boardwalk, and stroll across a flat marine platform near Skenes Creek, Victoria.

The “salad days” of field work in the Otways; Skenes Creek, with nothing but flat marine platform and a parking lot nearby. My wife Ruth, having arrived in Australia just the day before, is definitely enjoying this easy start, but has no inkling whatsoever of the next two days’ worth of field work, which let’s just say was almost the opposite of what you see here.

The main reason why we stopped at Skenes Creek is because the Cretaceous rocks here were rumored to hold dinosaur tracks. This idea started in the 1980s when a local resident spotted and photographed tracks there, then reported them in a letter sent to Tom, which even included a photograph of these important trace fossils. Ever since then, paleontological volunteers have come back looking for these tracks; alas, none have been spotted. This was my fourth time there, and I did no better than my predecessors, although I did note and photograph some probable invertebrate trace fossils while there. So back in the car, and it was a short drive to Apollo Bay, which was where we were staying.

The number in our field party increased to five on Monday, June 21, as geologist Michael (Mike) Hall (Monash University) and our local guide and local Greg Denney joined Tom, Ruth, and me. This was also the first day of the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere, and Ruth, having just arrived from the oppressive heat and humidity of summertime in Atlanta, Georgia, was reveling in the kinder temperatures of a seasonal flip.

Tha day, we all went to an outcrop west of Dinosaur Cove with the intention of figuring out its stratigraphy – the order and distribution of the sedimentary rocks – and the original sedimentary environments – how the sediments composing the rocks were deposited more than 100 million years ago there, whether by river channels, deltas, floodplains, or lakes. By the end of that field day (some of which was rather strenuous), we felt that this goal was achieved, and we knew much more about the sedimentary situations that led to the formation and preservation of the trace fossils there.

Stratigraphy and sedimentary environments can be studied in lovely places, for sure, and the Otways Ranges have a wealth of them.

So what about June 22 and its challenges? It began with our goal, which was to scout a sizeable outcrop at a place I had never seen, the inauspiciously named Rotten Point. Rotten Point is located immediately west of Dinosaur Cove, and consists of dramatic coastal cliffs and marine platforms, which are continually shaped by powerful waves from southwesterly blowing winds. In planning for this reconnaissance, Greg told us this site should be easy to access. We examined a map together, which seemed to back up his claim. We could drive on a dirt road through his property to a small parking spot near Dinosaur Cove, park the vehicle, then hike a short trail to the outcrop that led from the track for the Great Ocean Walk. As we might say in the U.S., “Piece of cake.”

This “cake,” however, came out looking far different from its picture on the box, which looked all glossy and perfect, its icing tempting and sweet. Moreover, the instructions for mixing the ingredients and baking the cake must have been translated into Chinese, then back into English, and translated again into Esperanto with perhaps a smattering of Pig Latin. The “clear” trail had changed into an overgrown one that wound down a steep slope to the outcrop, a common occurrence in a place where plants tend to grow if unhampered by grazing animals or defoliating humans. This was not so bad in itself, but once we traversed it and reached the outcrop, we found ourselves standing on a relatively small bit of Cretaceous sandstone, penned in by broad gaps in the marine platform to the east and west. There simply was not much rock for us to see here, especially when compared to what was just east of us. Moreover, my ichno-vision detected no trace fossils here, a sad state of affairs, indeed.

Hey, looks like more Cretaceous rocks over there, perhaps with some trace fossils. What, you don’t want to swim across? Why not – where’s your sense of adventure?

So if we were to really examine this site, we would have to go back up and turn to the east, then hike over to a ridge to circumvent a broad chasm filled with foamy and churning seawater. Once there, we could drop down next to the cliffs and further down to the marine platform, enabling us to examine the much larger amount of rock offered to us by most of Rotten Point.

Back up the trail we went, and with Greg leading the way, we plunged into the dense coastal scrub.

Greg Denney, doing his Australian version of Houdini by disappearing in the coastal scrub: now you see him, now you don’t.

After all, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and there was no other way to reach the outcrop short of evolving gills or wings (and who has the time or genes for that?). Fortunately, very little of this coastal greenery is lethal, or even mildly disagreeable, for that matter. So this became more of an exercise in patience as we struggled our way through the thick vegetation to the ridge.

Once we reached the ridge, a quick slide down a sandy slope led to another patch of coastal scrub, then an abrupt descent into an amphitheater of Cretaceous rock. We had made it.

The cove just west of Rotten Point, which perhaps means it could be called Rotten Point Cove, but I will just call, Helluva-Trip-In Cove.

But was it worth the trip, geologically and paleontologically speaking? Tune in for A Not-So-Rotten Day at Rotten Point: Part II, in the next entry…

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Dinosaurs Down Underground: Part II

(I am now in Melbourne for a brief respite from the field, which will likely commence on Sunday, weather permitting. So in lieu of a field report, the following is the second in a three-part series about the development of the scientific hypothesis of “burrowing dinosaurs,” based on fossil evidence from Montana (USA) and Victoria in Australia.)

A general principle in paleontology is that the least accessible places often have the most important fossils. In the case of burrowing dinosaurs, this was true in both hemispheres. In the Northern Hemisphere, the place was in western Montana (USA), south of the small town of Lima, and in the Southern Hemisphere, it was in Victoria, Australia at a hard-to-reach and auspiciously dubbed location called Knowledge Creek.

During a 2005 field season in western Montana, a field crew associated with Montana State University (MSU), including paleontologist Yoshi Katsura of the Gifu Prefecture Museum (Japan), were prospecting a Cretaceous formation for dinosaurs or any other fossils that might reveal themselves. One day, he spotted a few dinosaur bones sticking out of the formation.

Yoshi Katsura, dinosaur hunter and discoverer of the first known burrowing dinosaur, Oryctodromeus cubicularis. With rock hammer ready for action, he looks straight out of either an Akira Kurosawa or a Quintin Tarintino film (and if the latter, let’s hope it’s not Kill Bill 3).

The prolific science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov once remarked, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny…’” Accordingly, while the crew set to excavating the skeleton, paleontologist David (Dave) Varricchio of MSU experienced one of those “that’s funny” moment. As he described the sedimentary rock surrounding the dinosaur bones, he noticed how it defined an odd but distinctive structure.

Later in that summer of 2005, Dave e-mailed me a photo of the structure, but with minimal information, all the better for preventing any biases on my part. After I looked at it for a while, I wrote back to him with an analysis and concluded, “Looks like a burrow to me. What did you have in it – a crocodile?” When he told me it was a dinosaur, I started doing a Snoopy dance. This was potentially a major discovery: the first known burrowing dinosaur from the geologic record!

The dinosaur was also a small ornithopod. Dave had long suspected that some small ornithopods in Montana were likely candidates for underground lifestyles, a hunch he readily admitted was based on little information. But now he had some evidence to start testing it, so that it was more than a feeling.

A few months later, Dave flew me out to Bozeman, Montana (Well, actually, he didn’t fly me out himself – it’s not like he’s a pilot, too – but he did pay for my plane ticket.) From there, we went together to the site and excavated the soft sedimentary rock around the structure from which the dinosaur came.

Dave Varricchio of MSU, paleontologist and performance artist, rehearsing a set piece in which he digs out the remains of a dinosaur burrow, which in and of itself was dug out by the dinosaur. Yet, the burrow was defined through hollowness before being filled by geologic processes between those excavations. Iterative, yet composed of opposites; diachronous, yet connected through a continuum. Very post-modern, with elements of surrealism. Discuss amongst yourselves.

When we finished, we stood back to look at the structure. It was a natural cast of the burrow, set in white sandstone, and was originally a descending, spiraled tunnel (right turn, followed by a left turn) with an enlarged chamber at the end. This must have been the living room. There was, however, no sign of the bathroom, which must have been outside the burrow, probably with the dinosaurian equivalent of a crescent moon marking it.

View of the purported burrow of the Cretaceous dinosaur Oryctodromeus, with arrows pointing to smaller burrows of other animals cheeky enough to live undergound with a dinosaur. What, I didn’t talk about this yet? Please do read further, then.

The original tunnel was just wide enough to admit the adult, a tight fit that also shows up in burrows made by a lot of modern burrowing critters, like armadillos and coyotes. Before we started digging, I also predicted that the big burrow should have smaller burrows coming off the main tunnel made by other animals that lived in the same burrow, such as insects and mammals. (This sort of interspecies cohabitation is probably illegal in most of Georgia and all of Alabama. Except if the animals are kinfolk, of course.) Nevertheless, it is very common in modern gopher tortoise burrows, which can have as many as 300 species of animals sharing any given burrow with a tortoise.

Sure enough, we found a cluster of small, pencil-like burrows on the upper corner of the big burrow, and a larger, banana-sized burrow on the lower corner. These additional bits of evidence made it even more likely that what we were looking at was the former home for the dinosaur and other critters that found this underground haven a safe, stable place to hang out.

The evidence got better once the specimen was prepared at the Museum of the Rockies. The dinosaur clearly showed anatomical traits suited for digging. Need more evidence? The adult dinosaur had two partially grown offspring of the same species in the burrow with it. This dinosaur was not only a digger, but a denner that took care of its young. It also demonstrated that this dinosaur might have faced the same problem as modern human parents, such as getting their kids out of the house.

Starting in the first half of 2006, Dave, Yoshi, and I wrote a paper that summarized our results and sent it in for peer review. But we were then surprised to experience several rejections. (I won’t say which journals rejected it, but will just say how that’s the nature of science). With a little more persistence, we finally did get it through peer review and into print in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B in March 2007. The publication of the paper garnered a little bit of media attention, although it was understandably buried under the far more important bit of news that Britney Spears was coming out of rehab (again).

Nonetheless, the news stories were nice for public education about the paper. The paper also led to our eventually winning an award for Best Paleontology Paper in 2007 from a Spanish foundation, Fundación Conjunto Paleontológico de Teruel-Dinópolis. Best of all, it inspired a very cool work of art, done by Georgia visionary artist, Ruth Truth (aka, Ruth Schowalter).

Mother Earth, Mother Dinosaur (2007), by Ruth Truth, and photographed by Ty Butler. (Full disclosure: I have slept with this artist, while also being married to her. Yes, I know: how retro.)

Art and science combined then, as this artwork graced the cover of a public-outreach book we wrote for and published through the Fundación Conjunto Paleontológico de Teruel-Dinópolis, titled El Dinosaurio que Excavó su Madriguera [The Dinosaur that Dug Its Burrow]. This book was translated into Spanish from our American English, and was aimed at Spanish teenagers to interest them in science.

The cover of El Dinosaurio que Excavó su Madriguera [The Dinosaur that Dug Its Burrow], published through the Fundación Conjunto Paleontológico de Teruel-Dinópolis in December 2009.

So what does any of this have to do with Australia and dinosaurs there? Ah, that is the subject of Dinosaurs Down Underground: Part III. (And not to worry, it will be nothing like Rocky III, Rambo III, and especially Crocodile Dundee III.) Next stop, Knowledge Creek, Victoria!

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!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Great Ocean Road(cuts)

After three days of rain, high winds, and waves, a break this morning (Saturday) in at least one of those three impediments – rain – meant that we could get out to see a few Cretaceous outcrops and look for trace fossils.

Just a little bit of white water along the coast: no worries, mate.

To avoid waves and wind, though, the outcrops would have to be along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria. The Great Ocean Road is the Australian answer to Highway 1 in California, as both roads are famous for their fantastic views of where rocks meet the sea. The Great Ocean Road was begun just after World War I as a tribute to the men who served in that war, who were rewarded by being given the job of building the road. (Not to worry, they were paid for this work, and I’ll bet it was a vastly improved experience over fighting in the trenches of World War I.) The road was started in 1919 and finished in 1932, an amazing feat of Australian engineering and hard work that should not be neglected in your thoughts as you turn corners while driving and gasping at the amazing scenery along the way.

Perhaps the most spectacular geologic site visible off The Great Ocean Road is The Twelve Apostles, a series of seastacks eroded from Miocene marine limestone, located about a 1.5-hour drive west of Apollo Bay.

The Twelve Apostles, now more like the 7.5 Apostles, subject to further revision as long as shoreline erosion continues (which it will).

These seastacks and others in the area comprise a major tourist attraction, with day tours from Melbourne taking people there daily so they can take pictures of one another in front of vertical pillars of stratified Miocene limestone. (I mean, when you put it that way, who could resist?)

Nonetheless, we went east of Apollo Bay this morning, and pulled off into small roadside parking areas wherever a tasty roadcut beckoned. After about 11 days of field work on coastal outcrops in Victoria, this roadside geology felt more like home to me. Much of the geology I have done in the Appalachians, including for my Ph.D. dissertation in the late 1980s, has been on roadcuts. The mud puddles, grassy areas separating me from the rocks in places, random spider webs, and paranoia about getting hit by a car, all while staring up at an expanse of rock, all felt cheerfully familiar.

A Great Ocean Road(cut) of Cretaceous shale and sandstone, inspiring memories of Appalachia, but not quite the same.

A few big differences popped into my head, though, reeling me back to this place and time. One was that I could hear the roar of ocean waves below the road, a sound I have never heard anywhere in my field work in the southeastern U.S., and you would not have been likely to hear in that area since the Eocene Epoch (more than 50 million years ago). Just a few minutes ago, while writing this, I heard a kookaburra let loose its distinctive loud, raucous call, which you are most likely to hear in the southeastern U.S. by watching an old Tarzan movie.

Also, and most strangely, while I scrutinized the outcrops for trace fossils, not a single disparaging epitaph was shouted by passing motorists, nor did anyone honk a horn, let alone throw a half-consumed bottle of Bud Lite at me. Even the bicyclists who rode by smiled and cheerfully said “G’Day” before peddling on, instead of grimly ignoring me as they no doubt fantasized of being Lance Armstrong (or fantasized about Lance Armstrong, with the distinction thus made). This country is very nice to geologists, although I’m sure a few people driving by privately thought I had a ‘roo loose in the paddock.

Oh yes, one more important point to keep in mind was the message of the following sign:

This sign is clearly intended for American visitors who are driving their rental cars straight from the Melbourne airport to the Twelve Apostles. Sadly, it suffers from the fatal flaw of assuming that these Americans: (a) read; and (b) care. For me, I required constant reminding about this reversal of expectations for the directions of oncoming cars alongside this narrow road (“Great” refers to the gorgeous sights along it, not its width). Three quick turns of the head – right, left, then right again – followed by a mad dash across the road, was the best way to safely accomplish this sort of field work.

By mid-day, the rain began again, but six extensive outcrops had been surveyed. Almost no trace fossils were seen, but it was well worth the effort. After all, the best geologist is the one who sees the most rocks, and it was a privilege for this Yank to get a closer look at the rocks along the Great Ocean Road.

At the end of the rainbow is a Cretaceous trace fossil of unparalleled beauty and exquisite charm. Problem is, it’s underwater.