The lost world found in Victoria
Extraordinary as Darren’s find might sound, it actually isn’t. More than 20,000 significant fossils have been unearthed around Inverloch in the last 40 years. And while Mike says that recent foreshore erosion around Inverloch is worrying, its silver lining is a “bonanza” of fossil finds.
“Sand erosion has moved sand from the west end of the beach down to the east and it’s exposed a whole lot of new bones that have never been seen before,” says the palaeontologist and geologist, “plus ongoing erosion of the surface of the rock exposes new bones now and then”.
Inverloch, says Mike, is “ground zero” for Victorian and Australian dinosaurs, with the first-ever find of an Australian dinosaur bone – the Cape Paterson Claw – at Eagles Nest in 1903. Over 75 years later, university students Tim Flannery and John Long found bones there too, reigniting a ‘dinosaur rush’ that has ranged across the Bass Coast ever since.
“Inverloch is one of few places in Australia where you do have a chance, however small, of actually finding a real fossil,” says Mike.
A new hobby for dinosaur lovers takes off
The relatively recent fossil-fuelled fascination with the area encouraged the Bass Coast Shire to announce plans for a 50-kilometre-long dinosaur-themed walking trail complete with dinosaur statues, palaeoart, sound-and-light shows and a museum. It’s set to run from San Remo to Inverloch, the centre of dinosaur knowledge in the region.
Just two kilometres east of Eagles Nest is Flat Rocks, where Darren found his femur. It looks like any other beach - sand draping a flat, rocky area dotted with rock pools at low tide. But in an ancient former life, this was a riverbed holding the dismembered remains of fish, mammals and dinosaurs sluiced in during raging floods.
And in that former life, this ‘Victorian’ floodplain sat near the South Pole, part of the southern landmass of Gondwanaland. Wet, cold and dark for months at a time, the polar edges of this ‘lost world’ were nevertheless alive with now-extinct creatures.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon, we go in search of them, hopping between rockpools on Mike’s Dinosaur Discovery tour with the Bunurong Environment Centre. He shapes the tour as a dinosaur hunt, and has us in the palm of his hand with the smarts and wit of the science teacher he used to be.
We search for and find the raised footprint of a dinosaur (or two) set in the rock – there are four toes rather than three, so this is one print on top of another. A vandal has knocked the top off two of the toes, but it’s still clearly visible. And Mike reckons that with a dig permit, there’s a 70 per cent chance of finding a whole row of footprints underneath. Then we go free-range, looking for the colour variation that landed Darren his femur.
“I think people are attracted to dinosaurs for the same reason they’re attracted to lions and tigers,” says Mike, “because we like top predators.”
He should know, he found one himself 30 years ago at San Remo – the jawbones of a giant carnivorous amphibian. Koolasuchus cleelandii – “imagine a Mexican walking fish the size of a crocodile” – is named after him and technician Leslie Kool, who worked for three months to extract the two enormous jaws from the block of rock that came to her lab.
It was a top river predator of the Cretaceous period, and you’ll find a life-size concrete replica at Inverloch’s Wallace Reserve. We come here at the end of Mike’s tour, to sit on concrete Koolasuchus in the sun and hammer away at bucketloads of rock fished out of a subdivision at Wonthaggi.
Our orders are to “get a rock and make it smaller” so we do, turning up not dinosaurs but fragments of the leaves and ferns that fed them. And we’re more than rapt to take home a two-centimetre-long chunk of sandstone displaying a stripe of 125-million-year-old “top-quality dinosaur food.”