Paul M.A. Willis
Technical Adviser to Dinosaurs At Large
Many people have the strange notion that palaeontologists are clever people with X-ray vision. Somehow, either by cunning or a magical ability to see into the ground, we know exactly where to dig to find fossils. Sorry to have to admit to not being quite so wonderful, but we palaeontologists are neither magical or clever (well, perhaps a little bit clever!).
Most dinosaur fossils are found laying on the surface of the ground. There are probably many complete, beautifully preserved specimens that have been completely ignored by passing palaeontologists because they are completely covered over by as little as a centimetre of rock.
To find dinosaurs, palaeontologists identify areas where the rocks are the right age and where the rocks were layed down in the right environment. It is then a matter of slowly and thoroughly walking over the area, inspecting every square centimetre, looking for scraps of bone or other give away signs that there is an important fossil in the area. What our searching technique lacks in stealth is more than made up for in patience and persistence.
We don’t actually dig for fossils unless we know we are going to be rewarded for our efforts. For example, we only dig for dinosaurs when we have found some part of the animal exposed on the surface and digging under it might reveal more of the specimen.
There are, of course, exceptions to these general rules. In the 1880s twenty skeletons of the dinosaur Iguanodon as well as some crocodiles and turtles were found over a kilometre from the surface during coal mining activities near Bernissart in Belgium. The famous Dinosaur Cove site in southern Victoria is a “dinosaur mine” where they have tunnelled along the bottom of an old stream channel in which the occasional dinosaur bones have been found. Occasionally opal miners come across dinosaur bones at Lightning Ridge, New South Wales while they quarry for more glamorous stones.
Not all fossils are found by endless hours of searching by palaeontologists. In the late 1800s and early 1900′s the famous American palaeontologist Barnum Brown toured the American West in search of dinosaurs. His best finds were made in pubs where he would wait around drinking beer until the locals came to him with information about fossils in the area. Now this sounds like my kind of fossil hunting!
Definitely not for me is the life of Charles Sternberg and the famous American palaeontologist Edward Drinker Cope. These two intrepid palaeontologists excavated the first complete skeleton of Triceratops from the side of a hill in Montana. This hill is now known as Big Horn and, at the same time that Sternberg and Cope were digging up their beastie, General Custer was being slaughtered on the other side of the hill. As if that wasn’t enough to give them nightmares, Cope couldn’t sleep properly for the rest of the expedition; every time he closed his eyes he dreamt he was being tossed around on the horns of his newly found Triceratops.
Wild Indians are never a problem for palaeontologists in Australia where flies, mozzies and snakes are a greater problem. But there are vast areas of Australia that have not been looked at yet for dinosaurs that may well contain important and interesting specimens. Watch this space for future developments!