Victoria’s dinosaur detectives

Travelling Well | Nick Place. | Posted on 19 December 2017

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.

They weren’t the only ones wondering why dinosaur bones hadn’t really been found on this giant continent.
illustration of different kinds of dinosaurs

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.

Victoria may have had one of the world’s most diverse array of small ornithopod herbivore dinosaurs.

“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.

Then there are bones believed to be from a close relative of the Australovenator, which gets anybody’s heart beating because that’s one of the big dinosaurs, and a lookalike of the infamous Tyrannosaurus rex, except that Victoria’s version may have had feathers. The problem is that, because the Australovenator was at the top of the food chain, there weren’t as many carcasses left lying about, half eaten, to ooze into lakes or mud and eventually become fossilised, whereas lots of smaller herbivore bones have been found.

Feathers were originally evolved for insulation.

In fact, Patricia and her team are investigating whether Victoria may have had one of the world’s most diverse array of small ornithopod herbivore dinosaurs, with a surprisingly hardy ability to survive in the daunting local conditions, including such unique features as large eyes for the gloomy light. There is always so much more to find out.

Right now, Patricia is excited because she is trying to raise money and negotiate with VicRoads to conduct a dig in a former frozen lake at Koonwarra, a site where the South Gippsland Highway is about to be widened. This lake has already produced an unexpectedly giant prehistoric flea, fossilised fish and dinosaur feathers. The feathers are especially significant because they give Patricia and her colleagues, such as Dr Steve Poropat, an insight into how dinosaurs survived in that very cold, dark, sub-Antarctic version of Victoria.

“Feathers were originally evolved for insulation,” Patricia explains. “It was only later, as birds evolved, that they developed feathers for lift and aerodynamics.”

Feather discoveries are also exciting, for those of us non-science types planning to go to the Melbourne Museum or the RACV Inverloch Resort’s display to gaze at the Vickers-Rich family’s many finds, because fossilised feathers can carry pigments that confirm the colour of the down covering that dinosaur. When you watch Jurassic Park or other dinosaur-based media, often it’s pure best-guess as to what the skin or colour of the various beasts might have been. Feathers narrow that down. The search continues.

skeletal remains of an ornithopod on display in a museum

Ornithopod skeleton.


illustration of a giant flea on top of a mouse

An illustration of a giant flea.


Patricia Vickers-Rich isn’t only hoping the proposed dig of an ancient frozen lake near Koonwarra will uncover more details on the abnormally large fossilised fleas (with a body length of seven millimetres but up to two centimetres if you add the legs) discovered there but also about the tiny mammals – measuring roughly the length of a playing card – that existed at the same time. She can’t work out how the two co-existed, unless the flea rode the mammal around like a horse.

Koonwarra also promises to yield rich discoveries in prehistoric Victorian fish and dinosaurs. The dig is expected to provide invaluable data about climate change, water and air quality and other environmental information over millions of years, with obvious tie-backs to where the world is now in terms of global warming and how much man’s activity is contributing to that. (Spoiler: Patricia says “a lot”.)

The dig is planned for the first half of 2019, funds permitting. Patricia’s husband Tom is 76 and has failing eyesight, so she is hoping the dig can occur while he is able to participate.

She and colleague Steve Poropat are scientists and so not prone to outlandish statements, but they admit they are quietly hoping for a major discovery at the site, beyond even feathers, fleas and fish. The next great Victorian dinosaur find may be just waiting for them, in the path of a widening highway.

Unfortunately, your dream of building your own Australovenator will have to remain just that.

Victorian rocks, soil and beaches are believed to still be hiding many treasures in terms of fossils and bones. The best places to go looking are between Lorne and Cape Otway on the Great Ocean Road, or around the Inverloch area, according to Dr Tom Rich from Museums Victoria.

Unfortunately, your dream of building your own Australovenator will have to remain just that. Dinosaur remains are covered by state regulations that make it illegal to collect them privately. If you find something, contact the Melbourne Museum and hope it’s a new species that might be named after you. Patricia Vickers-Rich and Tom Rich are responsible for finding a swag of the relics that make up Melbourne Museum’s impressive Dinosaur Walk.

If dinosaurs aren’t your thing, Beaumaris is a hotspot for finding the remains of ancient whales, dolphins, seals and other marine life.


Find out more

Illustrations by Carolyn Ridsdale. Photos by Shannon Morris. 

Get back to nature in Gippsland at the RACV Inverloch Resort