A History of Museum Victoria

Home

Pictorial Timeline

Directors

Essays

Book

The Discovery of Dinosaur Cove

Thomas H. Rich

Some time in 1903, the geologist William Hamilton Ferguson was mapping the rocky coastal outcrops that occur a few kilometres west of Inverloch near a prominent feature called Eagles Nest. There his sharp eyes spotted what became the first fossil specimen to be correctly identified as a dinosaur, not only in Victoria but Australia as a whole.

Blasting rock at Dinosaur cove  mm0008156
These volunteers and many others created this tunnel by first drilling and blasting out the rock above the fossil layer to create a space to stand in. Once that was done, they dug down in the floor to reach the fossiliferous layer using somewhat gentler means, i.e. hack hammers rather than explosives. For every 1 kg of fossiliferous rock recovered,
30 kg of overburden had to be removed. If no fossils were evident underground, the fossiliferous rock was carried outside into the sunlight where other volunteers broke up every rock with hammers and chisels looking for specimens. Far more fossils were first seen outside than underground.
Photographer: Frank Coffa

Seventy-five years later, another geologist, Rob Glenie, and two dynamic young volunteers at the National Museum of Victoria returned to the site where Ferguson had indicated on his exquisite geological map of the area that the fossil was discovered. Almost as soon as they reached the shore platform, one of them, John Long, now Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the Western Australian Museum, found a bone embedded in a pebble. That discovery encouraged his cousin, Tim Flannery, now Director of the South Australian Museum, to return time and again over the next six months to the shore platforms between Inverloch and San Remo to search for more fossils.

As a result of Tim's efforts, about thirty fossil bones were discovered. Most were fragments that could not be identified but three were tantalising in the extreme. They not only showed that fossil bones could be found on the shore platform but also that extremely interesting ones were to be collected if enough effort was made. The three included the limb bone of an herbivorous hypsilophodontid dinosaur, an ankle bone of a large carnivorous dinosaur and what much later was determined to be the jaw of an amphibian group, then thought to have become extinct more than 80 million years ago.

This was certainly an encouraging start in rocks where Edmund Gill had said only six years previously that no more dinosaurs were likely to be found because the potential outcrops were readily accessible and had been visited by competent geologists for more than a century. Furthermore, 110 million years ago when dinosaurs were living there, Victoria was located in polar latitudes so that the specimen found by Ferguson was probably a fluke, perhaps a rare straggler that had somehow managed to reach high polar latitudes.

After Tim had surveyed all the exposures between Inverloch and San Remo, I looked at the geological map of Victoria and realised that similar rocks occurred also as coastal outcrops on the southern flank of the Otways. In 1979 we, with a number of colleagues, began systematically prospecting those outcrops. In a single day near the end of the first season four sites were found between Blanket Bay and Cape Otway. None yielded a great quantity of bone, although eventually from one of them would come the holotype of Atlascopcosaurus loadsi, one of the first two dinosaurs to be named from Victoria. In 1980, prospecting the coastal outcrops continued with the area west of Cape Otway being inspected.

Entering an unnamed cove on 13 December 1980, Tim Flannery and Mike Archer, now Director of the Australian Museum, were walking along the base of a cliff while I was about 15 metres away working parallel to them near the water's edge. They were talking to one another and, just after the thought went through my mind that they could not possibly find anything because they were so engrossed in their conversation, a whoop went up and they were down on their hands and knees. Although seeming hopelessly distracted, one of them had spotted a fragment of bone in a way that, with almost a sixth sense, excellent fossil finders can. Eventually about a dozen fragments of bone were found over a distance of about four metres. They occurred in what was obviously an ancient stream channel deposit in which fossil bones had accumulated much as gravel will in such a situation. That night, needing a name for this then unnamed cove, I scribbled in my notes 'Dinosaur Cove', not thinking then that it would ever have any particular significance.

Page 2

© Museum Victoria Australia