For the past week I’ve been at a dinosaur dig I’ve been fortunate enough to attend every February since 2010. The dig, jointly organised by Monash University and Museum Victoria, is known as Dinosaur Dreaming and has been running every summer for the past 20 years, making it potentially the longest running dinosaur dig in the world!
The locality is dated as Aptian (Early Cretaceous, ~120 Ma) and represents a a floodplain that existed in the rift valley formed by the gradual separation of Antarctica and Australia, a process that wasn’t completed until over 80 million years later. The supercontinent that these two continents formed part of (along with South America, Africa and India) was known as Gondwana. The fossils are found in layers in the light grey sandstone and conglomerate, along with abundant coal, fossilised tree stumps and other plant material. It is believed that the fossil material would have been swept in from locations upriver during episodes of flooding that caused the main rivers nearby to burst their banks. These fossil layers are what we look for when we dig at this site. It usually means having to clear off a sizeable amount of sand each morning to reaccess the fossil layer! Once we’ve cleared off the overburden a few crew members then use sledgehammers to break large chunks of rock out of the ground which is then passed to other crew members who break it down into sugar cube sized pieces searching for the fossils within.
And what type of fossils are we looking for exactly? Well, so far finds have included: dinosaurs (ornithopod and theropod), mammals, turtles, freshwater plesiosaurs, pterosaurs and fish, giving us a reasonably good idea of what made up this Early Cretaceous ecosystem. The downside is however that, as the material has been swept in by flooding, it is very rarely that complete elements are found (although keep your eyes peeled at the end of 2013/start of 2014 for something truly amazing coming from the site…). It is much more common to find small fragments of fossils that researchers then have to use all of their experience to piece the animal back together again, both literally and figuratively!
Another plus about the dig is that it provides school children from right across the state the chance to come and see what a real life dinosaur dig looks like (I wish I had that when I was a kid), they even get the chance to have a look for some fossils themselves!
The dig has its very own blog too, which keeps the public up to date with the goings on of the dig and what the diggers get up to during the rest of the year. Check out this video on the dinosaur dreaming blog, which shows the dig site and what we do, it even includes a short appearance by yours truly right at the end!
A massive thank you must go to Lesley, Gerry, Dave, Wendy, John and Lisa for all their hard work in keeping the dig going for as long as they have, hopefully it can last another 20 years!