Every school has its ‘fossil nut’, that student who is mad about dinosaurs and fossils. These students can be infuriating! Most teachers would love to be able to encourage such an interest but what do you offer them after they have read every dinosaur book in the school library? The next logical step is the Fossil Club.
While fossils have been around for hundreds of millions of years, the Fossil Club of New South Wales isn’t quite so old, although they do hope to be as glamorous! The Club began about 25 years ago with only a handful of people who wanted to collect fossils and wished to associate with like-minded people, to get together for fossil-hunting and the exchange of information.
In the decades which followed (during which most people to whom you mentioned “fossils”, said “What’s that?”), the Fossil Club expanded quietly to have across New South Wales to about 200 members. Monthly meetings are held at the Australian Museum in Sydney and regular field trips take place to sites within easy reach of the city. Country, as well as other, members are kept informed of events and some of the latest research in the field by means of a quarterly newsletter.
Now that people generally have become aware of the interest and significance of fossils, the Club is attracting many new members, including children – our youngest member is 6 years old, our oldest member isn’t telling. It’s usual for us to have a palaeontologist to speak on meeting nights about their particular field of research or practise. They address us, appropriately, as well-informed amateurs and their talks are always illustrated with slides, maps, photos and even specimens, so that it is a learning experience well within the grasp of any intelligent (and keen!) 8 year old. Supper follows the meeting and allows the chance of exchanging the latest information about what’s going on in the fossil world, particularly at the local level.
It’s in this aspect, perhaps, where the Fossil Club’s significance may best be felt in bringing home to people the excitement inherent in their unique discovery of a fossil which may have been buried for hundreds of millions years and the realisation that palaeontology is not merely an esoteric science pursued only by gifted and highly-trained professionals, but is a hands-on science available to everybody. In fact, palaeontology has always been a discipline featuring the work of talented and determined amateurs. Mary Anning, considered by many to be the founder of modern palaeontology, was such an amateur and many significant discoveries, even in the present day, are still made by amateurs.
The relationship between amateur and professional is reflected in the Fossil Club’s close association with The Australian Museum. The Club’s patron is Dr. Alex Ritchie whose recent discovery of ancient (and very important) fish at Canowindra, if not quite headlines, then at made least shoulder-lines in the media. The Fossil Club has always been given constant support by Dr. Ritchie and the other members of the staff at the Museum. Other palaeontologists from universities and museums throughout Australia and the world give their time to the Club at no charge. Since the Fossil Club is a non-profit organisation run entirely by the efforts of its members, this cooperation is a very important facet of our operations.
The Fossil Club does not go out looking for dinosaur remains, for the simple reason that there aren’t and dinosaurs within “coo-ee” of Sydney. In fact, you’d have to shout long and loud for your call to be heard at the nearest dinosaur site, which is at Lightning Ridge. While the current craze for dinosaurs has brought some children to an understanding of the age of the Earth and the importance of the fossil record, it has also given rise to, at best, a lop-sided view of the pre-history by ignoring the bacteria, sea creatures, plants, amphibians and so on which came before the dinosaurs (and without which they couldn’t have come into being) and at worst, the false view that dinosaurs were contemporaries with early humans (or even modern ones!). An appreciation of the time scale of geological time and the numerous life-forms which arose during these eons, is best acquired through the personal discovery of fossil remains. And the thrill of such discoveries is terrific!
With fossil sites disappearing every year over New South Wales because of destruction for roads, buildings and golf-courses and because these represent our ancient heritage, the Fossil Club encourages careful and knowledgeable collecting at selected sites. It’s great to be able to work together at this and have experienced workers on hand to share their advice – imagine the horror of destroying the only “Whatchamacallit” known to civilisation, just because you didn’t know how to collect it.
Of course all this is a lot of fun as well as very, very cheap and very good exercise. So next time the ‘fossil nut’ in your class is clamouring for yet more information about fossils and dinosaurs, why not introduce them to the Fossil Club? Or perhaps you have an interest in fossils, so why not come along to a meeting or a field trip, to make up your own mind about joining? For information, ring Megan Breast on (02) 642-2398 or Brian and Nancy French on (02) 971-9142.
Information on fossil clubs in other states will be presented in future editions of Dinosaur Times – Ed.