Victoria’s dinosaur detectives
Meet the scientists on the trail of Victoria’s elusive dinosaur fossils.
One hundred and thirty million years ago Victoria wasn’t just a very different place, it was in a different place. It sat roughly where Antarctica is now, at a latitude of about 70 degrees south, but it wasn’t covered in an ice sheet; more of a permafrost. It was dark for months at a time, and wet and very cold.
Victoria was connected to what would later become Antarctica as well as the future New Zealand, which in turn was connected to what would later become South America. We were all part of Gondwanaland, one huge southern landmass. And dinosaurs roamed, among many other bizarre long-extinct creatures.
Professor Patricia Vickers-Rich still has a Californian drawl but has been living in Melbourne since the 1970s, the time she and her husband Tom, also a palaeontologist, decided Australia was a true frontier of dinosaur exploration.
They weren’t the only ones wondering why dinosaur bones hadn’t really been found on this giant continent. In 1903 the Cape Paterson Claw, an undisputed fossil, had been found at Eagles Nest near Inverloch in Gippsland, the first reported dinosaur find in Australia, but then followed 70 years of silence.
That was, until the day in the 1970s when mammologist and palaeontologist Tim Flannery, palaeontologist John Long and mapping geologist Robert Glenie, who had been tirelessly searching the Inverloch region for bones, walked into Patricia’s lounge room.
“They were carrying this fragment of a femur (thigh bone) and it was so much a base ornithopod,” she says. “They had a very significantly strange femur. There was no doubt. It was definitely not a cow.”
The progress from then has been extraordinary. Patricia and Tom, along with other scientists and volunteer enthusiasts, have pulled many dinosaur bones out of the ground and rocks in the Inverloch region, and also at Dinosaur Cove at Cape Otway. Victoria’s dinosaurs have been unearthed, examined and identified – from that femur, which turned out to be from a bi-pedal herbivore with scissor-like teeth (imagine your classic long-tail, long-neck dinosaur running on two legs) to stubby, horned, four-legged armoured creatures.