Research/Conference trip to New Zealand: Dunedin

After an exciting end to my time in Christchurch I thought Dunedin might be the destination for a more relaxing few days. However the excitement began on the drive down to Dunedin! I was given a lift by Dr. Alan Tennyson, Curator of Vertebrates at Te Papa Museum in Wellington. On the way south from Christchurch we decided to take slight detour and head to Haugh’s quarry in the Hakataramea Valley to have a brief look around to see if we could spot any fossils. We spent about 90 minutes looking around and were about to get back in the truck to continue on to Dunedin when Alan said “let’s have a quick look around the top of the quarry”. We searched around there for a few minutes until Alan found a bit of bone exposed. We brushed a bit of sediment away, the bone kept going. We brushed more sediment away, the bone still kept going! After a few minutes more it became apparent that this was a seriously large animal, we had bone spread out along at least a two metre long strip and there was no sign of the end of it! It was a fossil whale of some description, though what exactly remains to be seen. We realised that we were not going to be able to excavate this fossil ourselves and we were already going to be late for the beginning of the conference, so we decided to take some photos of what we had uncovered and head on to Dunedin.

This is Haugh's Quarry where Alan discovered the fossil whale. It was discovered pretty much were this photo was taken from. Photo by author.
This is Haugh’s Quarry where Alan Tennyson discovered the fossil whale. It was discovered pretty much where this photo was taken from. Photo by the author.

The next day we showed the images to Professor Ewan Fordyce, head of the Geology department at University of Otago and world-renowned authority on fossil whales. He was intrigued enough to want to go and excavate the fossil on Wednesday but then he received a phone call that two whales (Arnoux’s beaked whale or Berardius arnuxii) had stranded near Bluff, at the southern end of the island. He then invited me to come along on Wednesday and help dissect one of them! So I spent Wednesday covered in blood, guts and (when I helped to move the head) brains! Great fun!

Yours truly looking very CSI-esque at the Berardius dissection. Photo by Maria Zammit.
Yours truly looking very CSI-esque at the Berardius dissection. Photo by Maria Zammit.

When I wasn’t helping discover fossil whales or dissect dead extant ones, I also attended a few of the talks at the conference. Unfortunately there wasn’t as many palaeontology related talks as I had hoped, but it was more than made up for by the amount of research and field trips I got to go on. I managed to get lots of photos of the collections at University of Otago and Otago Museum. I also met a lot of new colleagues and (I hope) friends, one of whom, Bobby Boessenecker, has one of the best palaeontology blogs going.

Dunedin is a beautiful little city and is definitely worth a visit if the opportunity presents itself.

Slightly less gory than the previous picture, this is the Clocktower building at University of Otago, Dunedin. An example of how nice a city it is. Photo by the author.
Slightly less gory than the previous picture, this is the Clocktower building at University of Otago, Dunedin. An example of how nice a city it is. Photo by the author.

A big thank you goes to Ewan Fordyce for allowing access to his collections, taking time out of his busy schedule to talk with me and of course for letting me join in on the whale dissection.

Another big thank you goes to Alan Tennyson for driving me around everywhere as well as several interesting discussions.

And a massive thank you goes to Felix and Ikerne for letting me stay with them for the week, I look forward to returning the favour one day in Melbourne!

A great trip and I look froward to returning to New Zealand as soon as possible.

Research/Conference trip to New Zealand: Christchurch

One of the best things about being a palaeontologist (even a student one) is getting to travel around the world to visit other museums, fossil sites and to attend conferences. At the moment I’m attending the 7th Southern Connections Congress 2013 in Dunedin on the South Island of New Zealand (planning to post about this at the end of the week). But since I was coming to New Zealand I thought I would include a trip to the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch to visit their collections and have a look around.

I’ve already mentioned in a previous post that the fossil record of penguins in Australia is somewhat fragmentary. There’s very few complete elements, let alone complete skeletons. New Zealand does not suffer this affliction too however, with some absolutely amazing specimens that I would kill for to have in Australia!

The image on the left shows the holotype of Pachydyptes simpsoni, these few, poorly preserved elements constitute the most complete fossil penguin found in Australia to date. The image on the right however shows the what can be found in New Zealand, this is the holotype specimen of Pygoscelis tyreei and is a almost complete post-cranial skeleton. Photos by E.M.G. Fitgerald (L) and the author (R).
The image on the left shows the holotype of Pachydyptes simpsoni, these few, poorly preserved elements constitute the most complete fossil penguin found in Australia to date. The image on the right however shows the what can be found in New Zealand, this is the holotype specimen of Pygoscelis tyreei and is an almost complete post-cranial skeleton. Photos by E.M.G. Fitzgerald (L) and the author (R).

So when I spent two days last week in the collections of the Canterbury Museum, I was like the proverbial kid in the candy shop. There were some amazing penguin specimens and some very interesting cetacean specimens too. I took as many photographs as possible in the short time I had to build up my reference collection. It’s a lovely museum with beautiful botanical gardens and park right beside it, well worth a visit if you’re ever in that part of the world.

I couldn’t write something about Christchurch without mentioning the earthquake that struck on the 23rd February 2011, killing almost 200 people and destroying most of the CBD. When you see things like that on the news it’s almost impossible to comprehend the extent of the devastation of an event of that magnitude. But it was certainly brought home to me during my few days in Christchurch, even nearly two years after the earthquake. The CBD is still fenced off and out-of-bounds to the public and the city itself is effectively one big construction site, I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.

This the CBD of Christchurch, fenced off to the public. It rea;;y is like something from a movie. Photo by the author.
This the CBD of Christchurch, fenced off to the public. It really is like something from a movie. Photo by the author.

I was even given a brief reminder that the tectonic activity underneath Christchurch continues unabated. I was sitting in my room at the hostel I was staying in on Saturday night (I’m a party animal, I know) when the whole building began to shake! Fortunately it was a relatively weak quake and only lasted for around 10 seconds, but for those 10 seconds my heart rate increased rather rapidly!

But the city is rebuilding, and the feeling I got from the people I spoke to in Christchurch is that it will be stronger than ever when it is rebuilt. It is certainly worth visiting.

A big thanks goes to Dr. Paul Scofield for granting me access to the collections in Canterbury Museum and for the lunchtime beers!