Some shallow thoughts on deep time

January 9, 2009 09:58 by Wayne Gerdtz

Above: Trilobites, fossil ferns and Diprotodon - all a bit older than me.  (Source: Museum Victoria)

Time is an odd sort of thing – I’m always losing it, but you can never get it back. For example, one year ago, my son wasn’t even born. Ten years ago, I was still at University. A thousand years ago, Vikings were doing their thing in Europe . A million years ago, ancestral humans hadn’t even formed recognisable civilisations. But 600 million years? It almost goes without saying, but that’s a very long time ago. As you can probably guess, quite a bit has changed on our planet in that time.

One of the challenges we’re facing with our new exhibitions in the Science and Life Gallery redevelopment is to make this sort of timescale comprehensible – the amount of time is so big that it is hard to wrap your head around. The first of the four exhibitions to open will be Dinosaur Walk, displaying dinosaur skeletons and others, aims to summarise the last 253 million years of land vertebrate evolution, starting just before the age of the dinosaurs, passing through the Mesozoic where dinosaurs, flying and marine reptiles ruled their domains, through to their extinction and the eventual rise (and demise) of the megafauna.

So how do you fit something as mind-bogglingly vast as hundreds of millions of years into an exhibition space less than 50 metres long at Melbourne Museum ? The answers to that are, with careful selection of display objects, some very clever (and patient) exhibition designers and an equally talented exhibition team!

And consider this - if you think that 253 million years sounds like a long time, the exhibition opening 12 months after Dinosaur Walk will go back in time more than twice as far, right back to the emergence of complex life on earth, around 600 million years ago. That exhibition will also include the stories of life underwater as well as on land, and the geological processes that have shaped the very land and seas themselves. So, soon you will be able to stroll through 600 million years of life and landscapes and 253 million years of skeletons before you have a mid-morning coffee at the Melbourne Museum Cafeteria.

I think I’ll go and have one myself right now….

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s….not a dinosaur

November 28, 2008 04:45 by Wayne Gerdtz

An artists reconstruction of Pteranodon, one of the better known Pterosaurs. Artist: Kate Nolan

In a strange way, I feel sorry for some fossils. Take the flying reptiles (or Pterosaurs, with a silent “P”), for example – a group of unique animals that arose, flourished and diversified into myriad forms during the Mesozoic Era. Their success and diversity was over-shadowed for the most part, however, by the other dominant and better-known animals in the Mesozoic – the dinosaurs.

There is a misconception that the pterosaurs are a kind of flying dinosaur; not so, the Pterosaurs are a separate branch of the reptilian family tree distinct from the more popular land-lubbing dinos and those other underdogs of the Mesozoic, the marine reptiles. Pterosaurs (and their mates in the oceans) always seem to play second fiddle to dinosaurs, often relegated to second billing.…Pterosaurs didn’t even rate an appearance in the first Jurassic Park film, for example.

Part of the problem for the poor old Pterosaurs is their relative scarcity. This isn’t their fault – Pterosaurs needed to have small, lightweight bones so they could fly. Small, lightweight bones don’t preserve as fossils nearly as well as thumping great dinosaur bones, so as a consequence we find relatively fewer pterosaur fossils than dinosaur ones.

Some Pterosaurs were tiny, little larger than a sparrow, still others were truly enormous, and are the biggest animals ever to fly. The new skeleton display opening in the Easter holidays at Melbourne Museum will have the largest of all the known Pterosaurs, with an equally enormous name – Quetzalcoatlus, or as I’ll call her, Suzie Q.

Suzie will take a commanding position soaring over parade of skeletons in the new display, sharing the air above the dinosaurs with some of her smaller cousins. When you come to see the dinosaurs, spend some time appreciating the overhead underdogs – the rulers of the Mesozoic skies.