This is a first hand account of the discovery of dinosaur fossils in a cove near Glenaire, Victoria, Australia.
The Discovery of Dinosaur Cove
Thomas H. Rich
Some time in 1903, the geologist William Hamilton Ferguson was mapping the rocky coastal outcrops that occur a few kilometres west of Inverloch near a prominent feature called Eagles Nest. There his sharp eyes spotted what became the first fossil specimen to be correctly identified as a dinosaur, not only in Victoria but Australia as a whole.
Seventy-five years later, another geologist, Rob Glenie, and two dynamic young volunteers at the National Museum of Victoria returned to the site where Ferguson had indicated on his exquisite geological map of the area that the fossil was discovered. Almost as soon as they reached the shore platform, one of them, John Long, now Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the Western Australian Museum, found a bone embedded in a pebble. That discovery encouraged his cousin, Tim Flannery, now Director of the South Australian Museum, to return time and again over the next six months to the shore platforms between Inverloch and San Remo to search for more fossils.
As a result of Tim’s efforts, about thirty fossil bones were discovered. Most were fragments that could not be identified but three were tantalising in the extreme. They not only showed that fossil bones could be found on the shore platform but also that extremely interesting ones were to be collected if enough effort was made. The three included the limb bone of an herbivorous hypsilophodontid dinosaur, an ankle bone of a large carnivorous dinosaur and what much later was determined to be the jaw of an amphibian group, then thought to have become extinct more than 80 million years ago.
This was certainly an encouraging start in rocks where Edmund Gill had said only six years previously that no more dinosaurs were likely to be found because the potential outcrops were readily accessible and had been visited by competent geologists for more than a century. Furthermore, 110 million years ago when dinosaurs were living there, Victoria was located in polar latitudes so that the specimen found by Ferguson was probably a fluke, perhaps a rare straggler that had somehow managed to reach high polar latitudes.
After Tim had surveyed all the exposures between Inverloch and San Remo, I looked at the geological map of Victoria and realised that similar rocks occurred also as coastal outcrops on the southern flank of the Otways. In 1979 we, with a number of colleagues, began systematically prospecting those outcrops. In a single day near the end of the first season four sites were found between Blanket Bay and Cape Otway. None yielded a great quantity of bone, although eventually from one of them would come the holotype of Atlascopcosaurus loadsi, one of the first two dinosaurs to be named from Victoria. In 1980, prospecting the coastal outcrops continued with the area west of Cape Otway being inspected.
Entering an unnamed cove on 13 December 1980, Tim Flannery and Mike Archer, now Director of the Australian Museum, were walking along the base of a cliff while I was about 15 metres away working parallel to them near the water’s edge. They were talking to one another and, just after the thought went through my mind that they could not possibly find anything because they were so engrossed in their conversation, a whoop went up and they were down on their hands and knees. Although seeming hopelessly distracted, one of them had spotted a fragment of bone in a way that, with almost a sixth sense, excellent fossil finders can. Eventually about a dozen fragments of bone were found over a distance of about four metres. They occurred in what was obviously an ancient stream channel deposit in which fossil bones had accumulated much as gravel will in such a situation. That night, needing a name for this then unnamed cove, I scribbled in my notes ‘Dinosaur Cove’, not thinking then that it would ever have any particular significance.
Several new species have been discovered in Dinosaur Cove, including:
- Leaellynasaura amicagraphica was discovered in 1989 and is named after Riche’s daughter Leaellyn. Leaellynasaura was small, up to 90 cm long reptile with comparatively large eyes – most likely accustomed to life during the polar night.
- Timimus hermani has been desribed after two upper leg bones in 1993. This dinosaur is named after Riches’ son Tim. This reptile lived 106 million years ago and, according to hypothesis of Anusuya Chinsamy, possibly hibernated during the colder winter months.
- Atlascopcosaurus loadsi Rich & Vickers-Rich, 1989 – named after Atlas Copco Company – provider of equipment which was essential in finding the fossils. This quick reptile was 2 – 3 m long, weighing approximately 125 kg, lived during the early Cretaceous.
Dr Thomas H. Rich, Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology, has been with the Museum since 1974. Together with his wife and colleague, Patricia Vickers-Rich, his principal research work has been and continues to be concentrated on the Early Cretaceous polar dinosaur fauna of Victoria. That work grew out of his interest in the origin and early evolution of Australia’s unique mammals. Long funded by the National Geographic Society, in 2000 Pat and he received an award from them in recognition of ‘excellence in research and field exploration’. Both the results of their research and how they carried it out over a quarter of a century are outlined in their book Dinosaurs of Darkness published by Indiana University Press (2000) and Allen and Unwin (2001) which received the Eureka Science Book Prize for 2001.
Sourced under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence from Museum Victoria
The Polar Dinosaur Exhibition at Cape Otway Lightstation was featured in the first issue of Otway Life Magazine January 2014 pp. 6
Picture caption: Atlascopcosaurus loadsi, model in Jura Park, Poland
Wikimedia Commons, Bardrock, public domain
Otway Life Magazine spoke to Greg Denney about his recollection of the dinosaur dig near his family farm:
OLM: Dinosaurs figure large in many children’s imagination, how did the knowledge of them once being so close to your home affect you?
Greg: I was a young adult when the discoveries were made at dinosaur Cove so this question isn’t really relevant. Tom and Pat’s children were of course very involved and taken along to all the digs. The story goes that their daughter Lleaellyn was asking for her own dinosaur for Christmas and ended up having one named after her! The very first polar dinosaur was called Lleaellynasaura! note “saura” not “saurus” Female versus male conjugation of the word!
Only two dinosaurs in the world have the feminine ending. The other is a Maiasaura which is a dinosaur that has always been found with its eggs. It literally translates a “good mother lizard”. Not Australian but an interesting fact!!
OLM: How were you involved in the excavation?
Greg: My Dad was more involved directly than I was. They camped on our land and Tom Rich would arrive, often at meal times, with a problem to be fixed. Dad and I did what we could, fixing machinery or solving other logistical issues. I helped out once when Tom was taken ill and helped Pat with closing down the camp for the year. So, just “as needed”.
OLM: In what ways has this unique experience shaped you as an adult?
Greg: I probably have more interest in the local dinosaur history in later life as the full impact of the significance of the finds have been revealed. Running the exhibition “Wildlife of Gondwana”, which covered the big picture of how the world has evolved, with fauna and flora, was certainly an eye opener. It has been a real honour to work with Tom and Pat and their team and we are proud to have been a part of it.
Dad and I have always had a keen interest in natural history and to be involved in this just extended it into the field of palaeontology!
OLM: Anything else you would like to share?
Greg: We will help in any way we can to get a permanent home for the exhibition, that would tell the story of these finds to generations. It’s a local story. One of volunteers and a ‘can do’ attitude. It’s a story of a tough little dinosaur that lived in the harshest climate ever known for dinosaurs. It’s one that should be proudly presented by the people of the Otways.
And hopefully one day soon, it will be.