Friday, September 30, 2011

The Great Cretaceous Walk Takes a Rest

About six weeks ago, I shared the happy news of our discovering dinosaur tracks at Milanesia Beach, Victoria, which turned out to be the largest collection of polar dinosaur tracks known in the Southern Hemisphere. Those tracks were found during the month-long excursion (May-June 2010) along the Victoria coast that inspired the start of this blog. And although we found heaps more trace fossils, the tracks constituted out most important scientific find. So even though we have a but more science to do, this is as good of a time as any with this blog to say, “Catch you later” and make a transition both geographical and temporal.
The Great Cretaceous Walk has been very, very good to me. But it’s time to take a pause in all of the walking and talking about the Cretaceous of Australia, and look closer to home (Georgia) and at this time in the present (otherwise known as “now”). Photo by Tom Rich, and taken on May 28, 2011 (Day 2) of our month-long field survey of the Cretaceous trace fossils of Victoria.

 As loyal readers probably know, I live most of the year in Georgia (the one in the USA, not the "other" Georgia), and have been here for about 25 years. But ever since 2006, when my wife Ruth and I lived for 3-4 months in Melbourne, Victoria, I’ve been back to Australia almost every year, normally staying for 4-8 weeks each time. Most of those visits have involved going to Victoria for paleontology or teaching Emory University students in Queensland, but Ruth and I have also managed to visit every state and territory in Australia, with all-too-brief glimpses of Cretaceous rocks and fossils in Queensland and Western Australia. To be sure, we adore Australia and its fascinating natural history, and it now feels like our adopted home.
Ruth and me, at the end of a typical day of paleontological field work in Australia. Well, OK, I'll admit the truth: neither one of us had a horse. Photo from
Part of this blog, then, has been a big, juicy, love letter written to Australia. Granted, loving Australia is easy ‘cause it’s beautiful, given its fantastic Cretaceous rocks, natural scenery, geologic history, body fossils, trace fossils, people, and (of course) good beer. But as often happens with long-distance relationships, it’s lately been superseded by what’s closer to home.
I'm going to miss seeing tasty outcrops of Cretaceous rocks - like these - on the Victoria coast...

...and gorgeous, dramatic vistas like this. I can't believe I almost got paid to do this.

But you know what I'll miss the most about doing field work on the Victoria coast? All of the signs warning me of my impending doom.

Speaking of signs, I just want to point out that nobody, and I mean nobody, pays attention to following the rules more than Tom.
What could be so distracting that it would cause me to cast an ichnological gaze elsewhere? Well, what many of you may not know is that while writing The Great Cretaceous Walk – which started in May 2009 – I was also writing a book about the modern traces of plants and animals of the Georgia barrier islands.
This is one of the brazen, shameless hussies keeping me from thinking about Australia: St.Catherines (Island), Georgia (USA). Not to mention her sisters Sapelo, Cumberland, Jekyll, Ossabaw, and Wassaw. How could any ichnologist resist their siren calls to study their copious modern traces?

Remember the saying, "Variety is the spice of life"? Compare and contrast the previous photo with this one, taken while doing field work on the Victoria coast, and you'll get a taste of the curry I've been experiencing the past few years from doing field work in both Australia and Georgia.
My book, titled Life Traces of the Georgia Coast (Indiana University Press), is now in pre-production, meaning that it could come out later this year, but more likely will be publicly available the first half of 2012. It’s going to be a bloody big book, coming in at an estimated 600 pages long and with more than 130 figures, the latter consisting mostly of my photos and illustrations. It will also have color plates depicting some of the tracemakers, none of which are in Australia: alligators, armadillos, great blue herons, vultures, moon snails, horseshoe crabs, and many more species native to the southeastern U.S.

Best of all for paleo-philes, though, this book doesn’t just dwell in modern times, but looks at how these modern traces can be compared to similar-looking trace fossils in the geologic record, helping us to better interpret trilobite burrows, dinosaur tracks, and other such vestiges of past life.
Tracks of a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) in a beach sand on St. Catherines Island, Georgia, providing a nice analogue for thin-toed dinosaur tracks that might have been preserved in similar sandy deposits from the geologic past.

Thin-toed theropod dinosaur tracks, preserved in former riverbank sands from 105 million years ago, at Milanesia Beach, Victoria (Australia). See what I mean about comparing modern and fossil traces?
Because of this book and its impending publication, I’ve been shifting my creative energies away from the Cretaceous rocks of Australia and more toward what is right here, right now in Georgia. I even began another blog, lazily given the same title as the book (Life Traces of the Georgia Coast). Thus for me to continue trying to write The Great Cretaceous Walk while also devoting thoughts, energy, and words to a new blog that deals with subjects that are literally closer to home would dilute both, pleasing no one.
A map showing our route one day (June 10, 2010) along the Victoria coast near Apollo Bay, when I  turned on my GPS unit at the start and turned it off at the end of the field day. Just look for the little blue dots, which recorded my position throughout the day. Yes indeed, that was a lot of walking, but it was worth it for all of those luscious trace fossils we saw along the way.

But before saying “bye for now” on this blog, I thought it would be best to talk about you, gentle reader. For example, of everything mentioned here, what topics did you find the most interesting? Unlike a lot of other blogs – such as those about funny cats, being a mommy in a first-world country, or mommies in first-world countries who have funny cats (no, I’m not linking them) – this one had two primary and connected goals: to educate and entertain.

So I’ll bet a lot of readers came to it with the expectation that they might become a little more educated about the paleontology of Australia. But hopefully they also found it happily humorous, or were surprised to see a science site suffused with a surfeit of surly suppositions, or an alarming amalgam of alliterations. (But never palindromes, unless you find yourself in Glenelg. In words, alas, drown I.)
Anyway, as of today – September 30 (Eastern U.S. time zone) – here are the top five posts, based on your page views:

Four of those five posts had the ever-magical word “dinosaur” in the title, so it’s not exactly shocking to discover these at or near the top of the chart. Which made #3 (Diving Down Under in the Cretaceous Sea) all the more pleasing to see perform so well. What’s really amazing is that it’s about gastroliths (stomach stones) and their function in sea-dwelling Cretaceous critters! (Granted, these were some pretty neat critters, too.)

Similarly, the post that just barely came in #6 (Kronosaurus: The King (or Queen) of the Queensland Sea) was also gratifying, and I was glad to provide more public awareness about one of Australia’s most spectacular - but underappreciated - marine predators of all time (also mentioned here and here).

I also hope that my posting of #5 on the list (The Dinosaur Tracks of Western Australia May Go Extinct) made a very small difference in decisions made about bestowing National Heritage status to areas with dinosaur tracksites along the coast of Western Australia. As I write this, paleontologists are surveying some of the tracksites there to assess their scientific value in light of proposed development along the coast.

Just put the word "dinosaur" in something's name, and suddenly people start paying attention to it. You know, like Dinosaur Cove, Victoria, where I'm pictured here with Ruth and Tom Rich. Photo by Greg Denney, one of the world's greatest dinosaur trackers. (Hey, I'm just quoting.)

Something else I was very pleased to see from reader statistics was how many people from a wide range of countries were checking out the blog. For instance, here are the top-ten nations represented by you, the readers:

1. United States
2. Australia
3. United Kingdom
4. Canada
5. Germany
6. Italy
7. Russia
8. France
9. Brazil
10. New Zealand

Sure, I was not surprised to see that a blog written by an American in passable American English (with occasional forays into Australian “Strine”) would be read mostly by Americans, who also have the decided advantage of a 300+ million population and an overabundance of computers and free wireless connections.

Yet what was most gladdening for me – and impressive – is how enthusiastically Australians took to reading what this Yank had to say about their country and its fossils. Despite Australia having only about 8% of the population of the U.S. and not-so-free wireless (once causing me to even walk into a much-loathed Maccas to avail myself of its complimentary Internet connection) 17% of all page views over the past year-and-a-half originated from Australia! That’s bloody marvelous, and makes me feel good about giving something back to the wonderful people of Oz after you put up with me for so many visits. Good on ya, mates!

But I was also warmed to know that people in Uruguay, Qatar, Indonesia, Slovakia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and many other countries set their eyes on my words and photos. Thank you all, and I hope you learned something.

Will The Great Cretaceous Walk ever make a comeback? Yes, but in two very different ways. More conventionally, I’ll still write and publish an occasional post, especially if some really cool fossil discoveries come out of the Cretaceous rocks of Australia. This is highly likely, especially considering the exciting research continuing in the Cretaceous of Victoria, Queensland, and Western Australia.

But the main way you’ll again read about “Way Back Then Down Under” will be as a book, probably with the following title and subtitle:

The Great Cretaceous Walk: Adventures and Misadventures of an American Paleontologist in Australia

(Wait a minute, that sounds familiar.)

Why write a book? Well, thanks to this blog, much of it has already been written, so it’s actually low-hanging fruit for someone who likes to write books. But rather than simply recycling old posts – which would be deadly dull – a book presents an exciting opportunity to give readers more details, more experiences, and more stories about the Cretaceous worlds of Australia. I also expect that these stories will be greatly improved through the loving attention of a good editor and a little bit of peer review.

For example, almost all of what you read in my previous 50 posts was self-edited, which is not the best way to guarantee high-quality work. I mean, in one post, I misspelled Kylie Minogue’s name, for crissake. (For that mistake alone, I should be flogged. Preferably by Kylie herself.) My point is, for all of the blather and boasting the techno-literati are making about the joys of self-publishing through the new “e-book revolution,” there is no substitute for professional guidance in improving a book and making it a more satisfying experience for the author and readers.

Who will publish The Great Cretaceous Walk, and when? I don’t know the answer to either question, as I’ll have to put together a semi-coherent proposal, find a likely publisher, send the proposal, then keep fingers, toes, and other appendages crossed while waiting to find out whether it’s accepted (or not). If not the first time, then try, try again.

Regardless, I'm confident that it will get published some day, as the stories of Australia past, made clearer through the fossils discovered today and the people who find them, are just too beguiling to be ignored. Once the book is published, even more of the world will walk with me as they learn about the unique and fascinating Cretaceous lands, skies, and seas of Australia.

Until then, I give you all an Aussie salute, ta muchly, and cheers.

Paleontologists' tracks on a sandy beach of Victoria, heading to and from a Cretaceous outcrop, made during The Great Cretaceous Walk last year. Will these traces outlast the lives of the paleontologists? No, they were washed away with the next tide. But at least I took a picture.

Hard to believe I hadn't yet linked to anything from one of the greatest "on the road" movies ever made in Australia, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert. Spoiler: Priscilla was the bus. And my last piece of advice for everyone? No more bloody Abba!


  1. Hi Anthony my name is Lachlan and I'm a 9 yr. old primary school student.

    I attended the Otway dinosaurs exhibition on the weekend and found it to be very interesting. I have seen the foot prints that you found and I thought it was amazing. One of the people at the exhibition told me that the more toes that the dinosaur has it would make it slow. You know, well if you watched Jurassic park you know how the t-Rex can catch the jeep. Well the t-Rex can only run 25km an hour I think. I was very interested with the Komodo dragon like skeleton how one of the people told me that the Giant Komodo dragon was around when the aboriginals were around when it was. So one aboriginal could get lost and run in to him. That was because 500,000 yr old but in geology years that is't that old.Aboriginals were around then so yer that is what the man told me.

    From Lachlan :mrgreen: smiley face.

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