Tales from the past: Walking back in time on the rocks

HSV Public Lecture by Professor Pat Vickers-Rich, paleontologist, Monash University, at Balwyn Library on 28 May 2015

Pat grew up on a cotton farm in California where her family eked out a precarious living. She learnt to hunt and fish and valued the way in which the members of her community supported each other. She was part Cherokee, but as a child this was downplayed.

When she was 13 she wanted to do a science project on carbon-dating and wrote to the Nobel Laureate, Willard Libby at UCLA, asking if she could visit him. He agreed, and after a week in his laboratory she was able to build a carbon-dating machine with its own Geiger counter. On the strength of it she also won a prize at the Seattle National Science Fair and was able to visit another group of top scientists for a week. The legacy of this has helped foster her current work with Prime Sci, a science project in Melbourne which sends schoolkids to visit the Synchrotron, the Museum, the Botanical Gardens and the University.

In the ’50s and ’60s the ‘Space Race’ gave an important impetus to scientific research and teaching, and for Pat this provided an exciting milieu. She gained an undergraduate degree at Berkeley and then won a post-graduate scholarship to Columbia University in New York with her husband, Tom, a geologist. At that time knowledge about the movement of tectonic plates and the topography of the ocean floor was just being crystallised. It was a collaborative environment, and for Pat, working on a doctoral thesis about the origin and evolution of the avifauna of Australia, this was invaluable.

As a paleontologist, working in Australia over the past forty years, Pat, with her husband and a team of colleagues, has been influential in helping to overturn the notion that the fauna of Australia originated in the north and migrated south. The fossil record now suggests that it is more likely that Australia was linked with Antarctica about 100 to 120 million years ago, much further south than it is today, and is now moving northwards, very, very slowly. So, in summary, Australia started as part of a northern landmass, then drifted southwards as part of Gondwana, then separated from Antarctica, to become an isolated area where many unusual species developed. In some instances, animals that resemble northern fauna are similar, but not related, that is, they are analogues but not homologues.

In 1903, William Ferguson, a geologist who was mapping coal deposits near Inverloch, found a dinosaur claw at Eagle’s Nest. It was the first dinosaur bone to be found anywhere in Australia. Then, in 1979, Tim Flannery, John Long and Rob Glenie found more fossil fragments in that area. So, for the next ten years Pat and Tom prospected the coastline around Inverloch and along the Otway coast which had a similar rock-face. And they are still prospecting. There is a fossil dig at either Eagle’s Nest or along the Otway coast each year. About 700 items are retrieved during each season. As the fossils are embedded in rock it is not an easy exercise. The engineering firm, Atlas Copco, supplied mining equipment in the ’80s, allowing tunneling into the rockface at Dinosaur Cove, near Lavers Hill. As a gesture of gratitude there is now a dinosaur known as Atlascopcosaurus. Similarly, when QANTAS helped with funding, another fossil was named Qantassaurus intrepidus. Pat would dearly like to see QANTAS planes in the sky sporting this little dinosaur as a mascot, but she has not been able to persuade the Board to take this step, so far.

In 1993 Australia Post asked for some assistance in preparing a set of dinosaur stamps to tie in with the launch of Jurassic Park and a touring Dinosaur Exhibition. Pat was able to use that opportunity to disseminate educational kits to schools, and Peter Trusler at the Museum of Victoria, who had been working on 3-D reconstruction of many of their discoveries, did the artwork for the stamps. Sub-sequently Time magazine used his picture of Qantas­saurus for a cover, with the caption, Dinosaurs Downunder. It was all good publicity, as well as being educational.

The fossils that have been found have included many polar animals. In other words there is evidence to show that Australia was much further south, at about 75 degrees of latitude, when these animals were living. Pat said that this collection of polar remains is the most diverse and extensive in the world, much greater in number than that of New Zealand and much more diverse than has been found around the North Pole.

Another exciting prospect is that a tiny jaw-bone which has been found in Victoria may belong to a placental mammal. If this is so, the range of Australian fauna will be radically expanded and mammalian history will need to be re-written. The jawbone has several teeth, which are definitely different from those seen in marsupials, and as the monotremes do not have teeth, it may belong to a placental mammal, in other words, an animal which had a placenta to nourish its young while they were in the womb.

Pat will travel to Iran and Saudi Arabia in the near future as part of work. She has also collaborated with scientists in China and Russia, arranging for large exhibitions of dinosaurs to travel to Australia. While they were here, preparators were given permission to make replicas and the Museum of Victoria now has an extensive collection of dinosaur models as a result. As well, some of the proceeds of the Russian exhibition funded the building of the Monash Science Centre, which is currently being used by Prime Sci and the Sustainability Institute. Monthly lectures are organized for the general public there.

Pat is now devoting more time to research into Pre-Cambrian fossils, that is, the early forms of life which occurred about 550 million years ago. She strongly endorses the words of George Washington, that ‘intellectual curiosity should be subsidized from the moment a child is born, and for life’, and that ‘nothing can lead to a stabilized and more satisfied society than education.’

Further reading:

Rich, Thomas H. and Patricia Vickers-Rich, Dinosaurs of Darkness, Allen and Unwin, 2000.

Report by Jennie Stuart

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