Tag Archives: fossils

Here Fishy – Part 1

Lovely as the countryside was, we were on a science tour, and the Canowindra Age of Fishes Museum was our destination.

Age of Fishes Museum

The story goes that while digging up a nearby road, some workmen stumbled on some fossil fish. They called the Australian Museum, and when the road was opened up, they discovered loads and loads of dead fish from the Age of Fishes in Devonian times, around 360 million years ago. The fish had died probably when their water source completely dried out in a bad drought. These slabs below are the tip of the iceberg.

Age of Fishes Museum

Back then fishes were the height of evolution. No animals had made it out of the water as yet. You can imagine that there was a lot of competition out in the water! Consequently, these fish aren’t like most of the modern fish you see. They had a suit of armour to protect them instead of scales or skin.

Age of Fishes Museum

Some of the fish were quite small, perhaps 10cm long at most. This one looks a bit like a weird mini sting ray.

Age of Fishes Museum

Others were up till 1.6 metres in length.

Age of Fishes Museum

We were lucky enough to have the foremost expert in these fishes telling us his story. It’s not often that you find so many fossil fish in the one place, even Sir David Attenborough visited recently.

Bathurst – Part 3

Also in the main precinct, and the purpose of our visit, was the old Primary School. Its size gave you an idea of how big the town was in the gold rush.

Australian Fossil and Mineral Museum

Now it houses the Australian Fossil and Mineral Museum.

Australian Fossil and Mineral Museum

Inside, there was a very beautiful collection of minerals from all over Australia and the world, but I was more interested in fossils. There was an impressive cast of a T-Rex skeleton.

Australian Fossil and Mineral Museum

But this weekend trip was all about marine fossils, particularly trilobites, an animal crossed between a crustacean and a centipede. These were common-place around 400 million years ago, but were wiped out in an extinction event 375 million years ago, possibly when the sea-level changed dramatically and the oxygen content in seawater decreased.

Their fossils are now found all over the world. The most spectacular specimens are from Morocco.

Australian Fossil and Mineral Museum

But Australia also has its fair share. These great specimens are from Kangaroo Island in South Australia.

Australian Fossil and Mineral Museum

The Natural History Museum – Part 2

The Natural History Museum is huge, with galleries full of old-school stuffed animals, dinosaur galleries (bones and all), reconstruction of blue whales, as well as enormous displays of minerals, precious gems, and interactive earth sciences exhibits. There were so many galleries in fact that it made my head spin. But given our recent trip to Lyme Regis, and my acquaintance with the story of Mary Anning, it was the marine reptile gallery that I found the most memorable.

Marine Dinosaur Gallery

It’s quite a simple gallery really – a light and airy space, it has mounted on its walls complete fossils of marine dinosaurs. In fact, it houses the actual fossils that Mary Anning found in the cliffs of Lyme Regis, 200 years ago.

Marine Dinosaur Gallery

Marine Dinosaur Gallery

Here was the head of the first full ichthyosaur fossil that she found with her brother when she was just twelve years old.

Marine Dinosaur Gallery

And above it was another ichthyosaur that she found in Lyme Regis. The details are fascinating – the teeth, the ammonites embedded on to the ichthyosaur, showing that the two very different creatues did co-exist 200 million years ago.

Marine Dinosaur Gallery

Marine Dinosaur Gallery

Marine Dinosaur Gallery

I actually got a bit emotional seeing ‘her’ creatures in the most hallowed natural history museum in Britain, knowing how she struggled to make her mark. It goes to show that Mary Anning’s contribution, although not fully acknowledged in her lifetime, is now celebrated.

Fossil Hunting – Part 3

It was a great day to be wandering along the beach, even if conditions weren’t optimal for fossil hunting. After two weeks of grey skies, the sun was greatly appreciated.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

We headed for the cliffs called the Black Ven. You can see the layers of bedding really clearly – they are interlacing layers of limestone and shale from Jurassic times. It is also very unstable, and as you can see there have been landslides here for eons.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

It was where Mary Anning found quite a few of her specimens. The species we found a lot of were ammonites – they were everywhere! They came in many forms:

Impressions of ammonites in the shale (a sedimentary rock). These were very fragile and aren’t worth keeping, but were pretty nevertheless.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

Pyritised ammonites that have been fossilised into pyrite (ie. Fool’s gold). These can be kept!

Fossil hunting in Lyme

More impressions of ammonites, this time in siltstone (also a sedimentary rock, with a grain size in between sandstone and shale).

Fossil hunting in Lyme

Fossil hunting in Lyme

There were also impression of leaves.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

And we did find a dinosaur fossil – a limb bone from a marine reptile. It’s surrounded by fossil crinoids (a species we found a lot of in Australia).

Fossil hunting in Lyme

Unfortunately, the slab that the fossil was in was big – there was no way we could have slipped it into our suitcase. But we did take back a few ammonites, which are now on display in Sydney.

We’d lost track of time (and so did Paddy, our guide), and when we looked at our watches, three hours had gone by. It was time to head back before the rising tide caught us. But before we leave the beach, and Lyme Regis, we took one last look at the Jurassic Coastline.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

Fossil Hunting – Part 2

We were met at the museum by our guide Paddy. Paddy is a paleontologist as well as a guide and has scoured these shores almost daily for many years.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

Paddy took us down to East Beach, the stretch of sand between Lyme Regis and Charmouth, where Mary Anning found her best specimens.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

He told us honestly that it wasn’t a good day for collecting fossils. The best days were the really stormy ones, since the best chance of finding something new was when the tide, rain and wind eroded the cliffs. Also, you had a greater chance of finding something when it’s wet, as the fossils had a distinct gleam to them compared to other rocks. Paddy showed us one of his finds on such a day – it was a piece of a dinosaur vertebrae.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

Mary Anning was known for going out on blustery days to look for fossils by the cliffs. She almost lost her life several times from being caught in landslides. Indeed, her dog Tray was killed in one. Another thing to look out for is the tides. At one point the beach narrows so much that you can only pass the point two hours on either side of the low tide. Fortunately the tours were done within this period, and we had no problem with getting cut off.

Once Paddy showed us examples of fossils that we might typically encounter (ammonites, belemnites, ‘Devil’s Toe Nail’, and dinosaur vertebrae, among others), we ambled down the beach to seek our ‘fortunes’.

Fossil hunting in Lyme

What did we find?

Fossil Hunting – Part 1

We weren’t taking just a walk along the beach – we wanted to search for fossils. The area is called the Jurassic Coast for a reason – it’s shores are actually seabeds from the Jurassic, the time of the dinosaurs. A quick look at the museum or in the numerous fossil shops show the range of creatures to be found. The most impressive of those is the ichthyosaur, a marine dinosaur that’s the shape of a dolphin.

Morning at Lyme Regis

Lyme Regis is the first place that it was discovered, back in the early 1800’s, by an extraordinary lady called Mary Anning.

Morning at Lyme Regis

Mary’s story is a fascinating one. I first became acquainted with it while reading Tracy Chevalier’s novel, Remarkable Creatures. She wasn’t an Oxbridge professor, but a working-class woman. Her father was a carpenter and sold fossils to tourists. The family lived on the site of the current Lyme Regis museum, right by the sea.

Morning at Lyme Regis

Mary became proficient at an early age in finding these fossils on the beaches of Lyme. When she was just twelve, Mary and her brother found their first ichthyosaur, intact, in the nearby cliffs. As Mary grew older and found more of these extraordinary creatures, Mary, and other scientists of the day who studied it, began to question their belief that God made the earth and all its creatures in seven days. Surely something that was encased in rock, that seemed to have no equivalent in the contemporary world, would have walked the earth thousands of years before us, not merely six?

This kind of thinking was dangerous of course, and it made Mary a renegade and outsider all her life. She was rarely acknowledged even as the source of the specimens, even though she led many scientists and visitors along the beach. Despite this, she continued with her work, finding other ichthyosaurs and other dinosaur species in the process. Her contribution to the science of paleontology may not have been acknowledged in her lifetime, but in the 21st Century she is an icon, and a source of inspiration to me.

Morning at Lyme Regis

Next, we’ll follow in Mary’s footsteps and see if we can find any fossils.

Going Home – Part 1

The end of the week came all too soon – it was time to go home. At Riversleigh, the palaeontologists bagged all their specimens.

Going home

And then put them in the 4WD’s to bring back to Adels Grove.

Going home

There, they put the bags on to palettes, which will eventually be taken back to Mt Isa, and then transported by train back to Sydney.

For them, it’s really just the beginning of their discoveries – the extraction, and then the identification and write up are all still ahead. They certainly have enough work to tide them over until next year’s trip to Riversleigh.

Cambrian Life

I wasn’t out in the field everyday (I was on holidays after all), but I liked to see what people brought in at the end of the day. One afternoon, Hubby returned with slabs of Cambrian trilobites and brachiopods. I was very happy because trilobites are my favourite fossils.

Fossils from Entrance Creek

I like their other-worldliness, these fossils being representatives from another time – when the Gulf Country and most of Eastern Australia was still under water, and when the only creatures on land were insects and spiders. Hubby suspected that there may be a new species in those slabs – he was only partially right.

This trilobite is a known species in the Gulf.

Fossils from Entrance Creek

We’re yet to find out what species this is.

Fossils from Entrance Creek

The ridged brachiopod (shell) is a known species, but those specimens came from western NSW. We’re yet to find out what species the smooth brachiopod is.

Fossils from Entrance Creek

These are giant burrows of some kind. So far no one has any idea of what could have made them. It must have been big, scary thing, whatever it was.

Fossils from Entrance Creek

And lastly, these are fossilised mud cracks! Surprising the things that survive.

Fossils from Entrance Creek

What happens at a dig – Part 2

Glimpsing their haul from the previous day, I saw that all the significant finds were neatly marked for sorting and transportation. There were piles and piles of rock, exposing jaws, teeth, and vertebrae.

A jaw bone.

South GAG site

Cross-section of bone (from a giant leg?).

South GAG site

A vertabra.

South GAG site

As the morning drew on, the pile of ‘potential’ rocks grew, but as a novice, I couldn’t identify anything without professional help. Later, I found out that the team had found the jaw of a nimbadon (a sheep-sized diprotodon), but unfortunately for me it had already been bagged-up, ready for transportation.

What were inside those rocks? It was frustrating that unlike at Wellington Caves, where the fossils were preserved in loose sediment that could easily be washed away, extracting fossils from limestone required time and effort. I guess it’s like the difference between digital and film photography. Wellington was like digital photography, where you could almost instantaneously view your finds. However the fossils in Riversleigh limestone, like developing film, required the rocks to be transported back to the labs at UNSW, where they would be submerged numerous times in a weak acid solution. Eventually the limestone would dissolve to reveal the bones inside it. Like an expectant photographer developing film, hopefully I can one day visit UNSW to get a glimpse of this year’s finds. It would really round-off my Riversleigh experience.

What happens at a dig – Part 1

I got to see more of the dig team in action the next day when we visited a site called South GAG Plateau. Early in the morning, there was a lot of scanning for potential sites. It also meant the carrying of equipment, including crow bars.

South GAG site

Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything being blown up that morning, so Lizard, the bushy-bearded explosives expert, wasn’t called to do anything more strenous than haul a few rocks.

South GAG site

That didn’t stop the eager palaeontologists and volunteers from wielding sledgehammers, crow bars, geo-picks, and shovels in an effort to extract more rocks.

South GAG site

South GAG site

After breaking the limestone into manageable chunks, they would carefully examine each piece to see whether it had bone (and hence ‘potential’).

South GAG site

What were inside those rocks?