The Far North Queensland Fossil Heritage Expeditions
introduce many primary and
secondary students to palaeontology.
All finds are donated to Australian museums and universities.
The fourteen expeditions to date 1992-2006 illuminated a genuine public interest
in the earth sciences and planted the seed for the creation of
this website, Earth Science Australia which went on-line via
the rural and remote, pioneer, volunteer ISP Bushnet in 1996.
A 110 million year lagoon of a shallow sea - dinosaurs, ichthyosaurs, giant squids:
Last days of Ichthyosaur 960901
The discovery of Ichthyosaur 960901 - 1996 dig
The fate of Ichthyosaur 970602 - 1997 dig
1996-1997 Photo gallery of Ichthyosaurs
Cretaceous Ichthyosaurs of Australia
1998 in search of the giant squid
2000 mystery tracks in the sand
A 4.2 million year old spring and fresh water pool - megafauna, giant marsupials, turtles, crocodiles:
1999 a new species of 4.2m.y.old Diprotodontid
Introduction by Sir David Attenborough
And there, glinting in the first rays of the sun to shine on it...
protrudes the gem like tooth of a fossilised creature.
You are the first human being ever to see it.
Few hearts do not beat faster at that enchanting moment."
Sir David Attenborough, London 1991
in the introduction to Riversleigh by Michael Archer, Suzanne J. Hand
and Henk Godthelp ISBN 0 7301 0314 5 All you wanted to know about Ichthyosaurs
Tribute to Australian Palaeontologist Mary Wade 1928-2005
Pregnant, sick and weak, unable to eat, with just two small gastroliths (grinding stones swallowed and used for breaking up food and ballast) and three fish vertebrae in its stomach Ichthyosaur 960901, used its last remaining energy to head out to deeper water.
Having made its way away from immediate predators, the 5 to 7 metre long dolphin look-alike and its unborn baby, died.
Its body quickly bloated in the warm, shallow seas that existed then, 100 million years ago, causing it to float even higher in the water than in life.
After a while its rotting carcass was attacked and eaten; ribs and all.
Buoyancy was lost and the heavy head, with spinal column attached dropped into the depths. The massive jaws speared into the oxygen poor gritty muck.
The spinal column and attached flesh, having been relieved of the weight of the head, was now able to float again, attached to the head anchored in the mud. Eventually the remaining flesh was eaten or rotted and the spinal bones deposited in a radial pattern on the surface of the mud.
Time passes. Mud rains on mud, deeper and deeper, slowly transforming bone to rock. Flowering plants replace conifers, cycads and ferns. Mountains build and erode. Time passes.The seas dry. The dinosaurs, rulers of the earth reach their zenith, then fade. Volcanoes come and go. Snakes, birds and bees appear. Mammals stalk the night and dominate the continents. They return to the sea as whales. Time passes. Giant sharks rule the sea. Ice ages come and go. Time passes. Rainforests cover Australia - gradually drying. Rock, once bone is exposed - a chance contact with a human.
A skeleton in a perilous place
is excavated. Fourteen days later a
freak storm, 200mm of rain in 24 hours, inundates the small gully; but
the skeleton is already safe. A three dimensional jigsaw puzzle is
cleaned, protected, reassembled over 3 months in the Home Economics
room by the students of Mount St. Bernard College and
to the The
Queensland Museum -
Kronosaurus Korner for all to
The Discovery of Ichthyosaur 960901
Ichthyosaur 960901 lay barely visible in the sunlight - just a glimpse of a few vertebrae. It emerged from its 100,000,000-year-old time capsule relatively intact. The preservation of any reptile remains over this mind-bendingly long period of time is a very chancy affair. - a miracle in itself.
Only an infinitesimally small
proportion of even the most abundant
creature that lived in previous geological periods have left any trace
of their passing.
The fossil record is a record of the ability of certain hard parts of creatures to endure. Vast numbers of species, and probably nearly all softbodied creatures, of which there is no trace or record, must have existed.
As a chronicle, it is an imperfect and incomplete series of discarded fragments of life through space and time.
As a tool it is probably one of the most powerful things we have in understanding the nature of change in natural environments and the temporary nature of the human condition.
- click for larger image
This is curious were Ichthyosaurs susceptible to a particular disease or did a food source develop a toxic defence?? - many seem to be "floaters" or is it just that floaters by spearing into the deep mud, increase their chances of preservation?
Why we think this one was a "floater"
- When a floater loses its buoyancy the massive jaw acts like an anchor dragging the body to the muddy bottom
- The massive jaw sometimes "spears" into the muck on an angle while the rest of the bones spread out over the horizontal surface of the mud
- The three visible vertebrae (as moulds on the surface) are also massive and appear to have pushed through the back of the frail skull at impact
- Remaining vertebrae (as viewed from the end) appear to have stayed in line with the original line of the spine
Sinusoidal ("s" shaped) fracturing along the jawbone - in geology this indicates compression (could also be caused by later compression but does not seem that evident in the surrounding rock)
Fred age 7 finds an ichthyosaur jaw
rough camping after a 14 hour drive
our ichthyosaur on display at the museum
ichthyosaurs have a great number of vertebrae
our logo for 1997
Mary Anning sold the first ichthyosaurs as "Sea Dragons"
Ichthyosaurs were reptiles perfectly designed for a life of hunting fish, squids andammonites in well-lit shallow seas. These "dolphin look-a-likes" had a streamlined body, fins, paddles and long, narrow jaws. They had enormous eyes and massive jaws and backbones. They gave birth to live young.
Dating from the Triassic; common in the Jurassic; Ichthyosaurs survived as fast-swimming predators into the late Cretaceous ending a span on earth of about 150 million years.
Platypterygius ("broad - fin") is the most common Ichthyosaur genus found in Australia and the last of their kind... It existed over a wide range of both space and time from the Lower Cretaceous to the Early part of the Upper Cretaceous.
Mary Wade (1984) of the Queensland Museum describes Far North Queensland finds in detail.
Paddles were long, composed of tightly packed bones calledphalanges, which proximally have a distinctive rectangular shape, like house bricks, and are arranged in regular columns, or finger rows, numbering up to ten. Distally, however; the individual elements vary in shape, some being rectangular, others polygonal and others are rounded giving a cross-section across the paddles resembling an airfoil.
The paddles are robust and the large size of the pectoral girdles with which they are articulated suggests they may have been used for paddling as well as for steering.
The teeth are so closely set that when thejaws close they mesh together leaving no gaps. This type of dentition - found today in dolphins and seals suggests a diet of small fast-moving prey such as squid.
Some researchers think that the ichthyosaurs drove their prey down into unoxygenated waters in the bottoms of lagoons - gill breathers suffocated and were easy to catch while the air breathing ichthyosaurs were unaffected.This environment also accounts for the unusually good levels of preservation, the preservation of squid shells and other materials not normally well represented in the fossil record.
Such prey require a fast snapping action of the jaws - there is no time to chew. Muscle scars close to the jaw joint suggest small contractions of the muscles would have brought about large movements at the tips of the jaws .
A remarkable large orbit and sclerotic ring suggest Ichthyosaurs had very large eyes to assist in hunting but it is not evidence of any ability to echo-locate as in whales.
Buoyancy created adaptations in these creatures. Buoyed up by water, the vertebrae lost their interlocking joints and were simplified as flattened discs, bearing neutral spines. Double headed ribs articulated to these discs and flared out to form a body that was deeply rounded in cross-section.
The large body mass to surface area would have made the creatures float much too high in the water to be able to hunt effectively, so instead of having porous bones their bones are nearly solid. Like crocodiles they also would have selectively swallowed stones to achieve a more neutral buoyancy.
Parts of a giant squid
-click on an expedition image for a larger image
Squid fossils of this size are rare possibly due to preservation requirements.
Photo of our 1 metre long squid
shell "cuttlebone" shown below left.
It was eatenby Australia's
swimming T-Rex kronosaurus queenslandicus
discovery of squid remains is a very rare event - normally the
"cuttlebone", fragile and weak is rapidly destroyed in an oxygen rich
environment. We believe the site of this discovery is quite unique - an
oxygen poor deep lagoon full of alkaline mud, beside a reef.
New Diprotodontid 990701
See the photos is this a new species of the diprotodontid bullock size marsupial euowenia
the second specimen only of the rare euowenia coreis -click on an image for a larger image
- note excessive tooth wear of
The Far North
Queensland Fossil Heritage Expedition 1999
centered on a 4.2 million year old lake site protected by a basalt lava
flow. We had worked this site during the prolonged drought
1992-1995 then decided to leave if for a few wet seasons to
time for more material to wash into the drainage and to clear the
drainage system of wind blown soil and dust from the last drought.. The
site has resulted in the discovery of a number of new species and a
particularly interesting crocodilian.
The lake or plunge pool was fed by a spring that still exists and contained two species of crocodile and a couple of species of turtle. Surrounding the lake was thick forest full of bullock size marsupial browsers and grazers, possums similar to those found today, kangaroos, wallabies, large flightless birds, pythons and koala like creatures. The bones of creatures that fell into the pool or were taken by crocodiles flushed down stream in the annual flooding and rapidly buried by the sand. The area was capped by a basalt lava flow which as it weathered provided silica to leave the bones; though shattered, and scattered, in remarkably good condition.
The drainage system was only partially cleared resulting in difficult field conditions.
Field identifications identify the lower jaw of a large diprotodontid, a vertebra of a very large python , a vertebra of a large flightless bird and a possible beak fragment among a range of single teeth and bones.
- click on image for a larger image
expedition logo 2000
final jaw fragment ichthyosaur 960901 recovered 1996-2000
Ichthyosaur Jaw - completes recovery of ichthyosaur 960901 started in 1996
discovery photo of jaw fragment and tooth
another view of ichthyosaur jaw and tooth fragment.
Plesiosaur rib in sandstone Expedition team 2000 Mad dogs and Englishman
Late rain hampered this years expedition by dumping large amounts of soil into the drainage system. As a result we could not follow trains of fragments up from drainage systems but had to work the less productive hill sides. As a result it was more difficult for the students on the expedition to train their eyes into identifying bone fragments. Despite these initial difficulties we were successful in obtaining some interesting specimens for the Richmond Museum of Marine Fossils. We were delighted to find a missing jaw fragment from Ichthyosaur 960901 - excavated in 1996 and found fragments from a number of other ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs which we left in situ for future teams as we were unable to trace them to source on this occasion. Many thanks to Mr. Scott Moore-Fay who flew over from England to join our team - his enthusiasm and insights were greatly valued by all. Thanks to the Priority Country Area Program on behalf of the Commonwealth Government of Australia for a grant to subsidise our diesel fuel costs.
- sorry we have no photos - we
found one diprotodontid jaw, an
elderly individual, in a different drainage but spent most of the time
looking for new sites to look at in detail in 2002
- giant marsupials at an old
spring site, the number of individuals
with well worn teeth at this site is quite perplexing
-click on an expedition image for a larger image
Dig 2003 waiting on images
-images only text to
diprotodontid tusk... more tusk images (1)
diprotodontid and other unidentified teeth... tooth
crocodile teeth...crocodile jaw
turtle carapace... another
- We have taken students on free digs since 1992
- We took on the name Far North Queensland Fossil Heritage Expeditions in 1997 when we found ourselves invited by landowners to more and more distant properties.
- We enter properties at the request of the landowner
- All significant finds are donated to Australian Museums or Universities
- Minor finds are used for touring displays of local North Queensland Schools and as teaching material in senior Earth Science
- Some fragments are used as teaching materials in local classrooms
- digs are carried out entirely by volunteers often at considerable personal expense
- all attempts are made to minimise costs to students
- we receive no support