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The Discovery of Dinosaur Cove

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After digging with what tools we had at the time, it was clear that, if this channel deposit was to be exploited, it would be necessary to follow it into the cliff by tunnelling. I was loath to do that. So we kept prospecting for another few years, hoping to find an equally rich site that could be got at more readily.

When the Museum hosted the Dinosaurs from China exhibition, the then newly formed Friends of the National Museum of Victoria acted as volunteer tour guides and general attendants. They also set up a shop to sell dinosaur paraphernalia. As a result, they became highly dinosaur conscious. In particular, they wanted to participate in a dinosaur excavation. Time and again I tried to persuade them that this was impractical in Victoria but to no avail. Their enthusiasm could not be dampened despite my best efforts. So I finally relented and said that there was a place we could try but there were no guarantees of success. They leaped at the opportunity and provided both volunteers (about seventy) and the profits from their shop.

For sixteen days in February 1984, this crew of volunteers with no experience between them, and a couple of miners who had experience, managed to claw out of the rocks a space underground about the size of two telephone booths. But that was enough. From it came eighty dinosaur bones, including a quite obvious limb bone of a large hypsilophodontid. So at last, three years after it had been officially named Dinosaur Cove, an undoubted dinosaur bone had been found in it. Even more important, this first dig demonstrated that with hard work fossil bones could be found there by systematic excavation. We were no longer dependent on surface finds only.

Work continued at Dinosaur Cove every summer except one through to 1994. In the meantime, an important new site was found near Inverloch by Lesley Kool and Michael Cleeland. Flat Rocks is only a few kilometres from where Ferguson found the first dinosaur bone in 1903. Lesley and Mike had first become involved with the project as volunteers at Dinosaur Cove. Even before the final summer at Dinosaur Cove, systematic work began at Flat Rocks. Between the two localities, a picture is emerging of life over a span of 10 million years in a previously unknown polar world that was inhabited by a variety of dinosaurs along with fish, archaic amphibians, mammals and a bird. Just like the initial 1984 dig, the contribution of literally hundreds of volunteers over the years was vital. In recognition of that effort, the species name of the other of the first two dinosaurs named from Victoria, Leaellynasaura amicagraphica, honours in part the Friends of Museum Victoria and by proxy all volunteers, for amica is Latin for 'friend'. Without that help plus many stalwart sponsors such as the National Geographic Society and Atlas Copco, this most unusual dinosaur assemblage, because it is a polar one, would be completely unknown.

Further Reading: T. H. Rich & P. Vickers-Rich, The Dinosaurs of Darkness (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2000).

Dr Thomas H. Rich, Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology, has been with the Museum since 1974. Together with his wife and colleague, Patricia Vickers-Rich, his principal research work has been and continues to be concentrated on the Early Cretaceous polar dinosaur fauna of Victoria. That work grew out of his interest in the origin and early evolution of Australia's unique mammals. Long funded by the National Geographic Society, in 2000 Pat and he received an award from them in recognition of 'excellence in research and field exploration'. Both the results of their research and how they carried it out over a quarter of a century are outlined in their book Dinosaurs of Darkness published by Indiana University Press (2000) and Allen and Unwin (2001) which received the Eureka Science Book Prize for 2001.

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