Epilogue A Personal Story

In 1964 I was in grade 2, aged seven. The most eventful thing that occurred that year was that I first went hunting for fossils with my schoolmate, Desmond Matthews, and his father, a teacher who loved collecting fossils.

It was a clear spring morning, the sun shining through the remaining wisps of fog which lingered over the damp green paddocks. This was Lilydale, about 30 km from Melbourne. We set off across a paddock to a little hole in the ground about 450 metres up the hill. Magpies swooped down on us, so we had to zig-zag our way forwards to eventually reach the little hole in the ground. It was about ten metres across. There was a pond in the middle with tall reeds sticking up. The sides of the hole exposed greyish-black rock which had little orange blotches scattered throughout. Desmond's dad showed us that if we looked really closely at the little orange marks we could see the imprints of shells and other things that were the remains of sea creatures that lived millions of years ago. Trilobites were our quarry, and I was lucky enough to find several on that first trip. This was the start of my fascination with fossils.

As time passed my interest in fossils and dinosaurs grew, and I began making notes from library books, keeping lists of prehistoric animals in exercise books and sometimes making drawings of them in my spare time. My mind began to fill up with these extinct animals and soon I was able to reel off a string of strange-sounding names. My mother would often wheel me out to some tradesman fixing the plumbing, or whatever, and say 'Go on, Johnny, say those prehistoric names for the men,' to which I would respond by blurting out 'Pterodactyl, Brontosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, Stegosaurus'. These little displays became common knowledge among my family and relatives, and word spread that I was a bit of a 'dinosaur expert'. I was eight at the time.

Someone suggested that I write to Professor George Baker, then the Head of the Geology Department at Melbourne University. With some help from my parents the letter was written and sent off, asking whether one of my fossils found in the hole in the ground at Lilydale was a dinosaur tooth (it looked like a picture I'd seen in a book of anIguanodon tooth). Not long after, we received a nice letter from Professor Baker, inviting me to come in and meet him. I remember that day very well. My father drove me in to the University and we met the kindly old man outside the old Geology Building. In 1965, the Geology Department had a magnificent collection of fossils and minerals on display in their own museum. The first thing I learned from that meeting was that my specimen could not be a dinosaur tooth because fossils from that site were much, much older, from a time well before dinosaurs had appeared on the Earth. In fact it was a horn-shaped rugose coral, and other specimens in my collection were identified as stems of crinoids, brachiopod shells, bits of coral and parts of trilo-bites. The most memorable thing for me, though, was the cabinets with their thick glass tops, row after row of them, chock-full of fossils, absolutely superb examples of everything from simple life forms to real bones of dinosaurs and gigantic prehistoric mammals.

My cousin Tim Flannery and his family then lived in Sandringham and we would visit them regularly, sometimes going down to the beach at Black Rock. It was there one day, when I was about nine years old, that Tim and I found a strange heart-shaped stone on the beach. It looked like a fossil, and this was confirmed for us by the local librarian, who told us that it was a Lovenia, or fossil sea urchin. He told us that they were easy to pick up if we went down to Beaumaris Beach, just around the corner from Black Rock. True enough, the first time we went down there we found more Lovenia specimens on the beach and I also picked up a fossilised shark's tooth.

We went down there whenever we could, and occasionally met other fossil collectors who showed us their best finds. Sharks' teeth of enormous size were the most valued finds, and we were told that to find the really good stuff we would be better off snorkelling around in the shallows rather than wasting time on the beach. It didn't take long to find the underwater fossil beds and our eyes soon became adjusted to finding large slabs of fossilised whale bones, sharks' teeth, ancient fish jaws, seals' teeth, penguin bones and many other specimens of life that lived beneath the seas some seven million years ago, in the late Miocene.

It was about this time that we began taking fossils into the National Museum of Victoria to get them identified by palaeontologists Dr Tom Darragh and Ken Bell, his assistant. They would happily come down to the public enquiry area and look at our little plastic ice-cream tubs full of bones and fossil shells, and chat about what we had found. Sometimes they would take us behind the public areas into the collections, pull out a drawer and match up one of our specimens with an identical fossil. These times were very special as we had to go down into the 'dungeons', as we called them, behind the scenes, where vast cabinets were lined up in rows. Above them hung wooden dug-out canoes, or dried-up heads. This was the very soul of the museum—its collections—the results of some 150 years of collecting and curating specimens.

Our mania for collecting fossils began leading Tim and me away from Beaumaris, to any other sites that we could get to with help from our parents. We had a trip to Hamilton in western Victoria one weekend and met up with a local collector, Lionel Elmore, who showed us the best spots to collect fossils around Hamilton. Two creeks which flowed by the town, Muddy Creek and Grange Burn, had fantastic exposures of blue clay, whitish limestone and coarse gritty marl, each of which contained its own fossil assemblages. In the one area we could collect fossils of three different ages, from three different environments, and get a great range of different things. These trips were also a lot of fun—we had to walk long distances across farmland, get through barbed-wire fences, dodge charging bulls in paddocks and make dangerous creek crossings. The sort of things that kids enjoy immensely became even more fun because of the added attraction of finding fossil sharks' teeth, whale ear bones, extinct species of shells (including giant cowries) and other ancient treasures.

Other trips to Fossil Beach and Grices Creek, near Mornington in Victoria, enabled us to collect fossil shells closer to home, and occasional trips to the Geelong area, to the Waurn Ponds quarries and Fyansford Quarry at Batesford, saw our fossil sharks' teeth collection grow (I had some 500 specimens of 25 different species by the age of fourteen). My father took Tim and me on a weekend trip to Minhamite, near Hamilton, and we were allowed to stay on the farm property. During our stay we not only collected Miocene fossil sharks' teeth, shells and the like, but also

Pleistocene extinct fossil marsupials, from a younger sediment layer above the sharks' teeth bed.

In short, our fossil collections grew as we managed to sample many different sites around Victoria and became familiar with their fossil faunas. Back at school, my interest in things prehistoric continued to grow. In 1970, when I was in Form 1 of secondary school, Tim and I jointly entered the Victorian Science Talent Search Competition and won a major prize for displaying our combined fossil collections with a summary volume (about 90 pages) on the Tertiary fossils of Victoria. The prize was $50, or $25 each, a small fortune. Competition winners would also get to set up their displays at the National Museum of Victoria, for all to see and admire. Next year we entered separately and both did well. I had summarised (in two volumes totalling around 220 pages), all the fossils of Victoria, from the Cambrian trilobites through to the Pleistocene megafauna. I won the $60 major prize in the junior division (I was thirteen at the time) and had to give a speech at the prize-winning ceremony, also held in the Museum of Victoria.

The following year I entered again, with a summary of the fossil fishes of Victoria, but including description of new, unrecognised species. I won a $10 prize. I guess you can't enter fossils every year and expect to keep winning. All up, though, we both did pretty well out of the competition, and it did give me some encouragement in my desire for a palaeontological career. To that end I entered Melbourne University in 1977 and spent two years studying geology there, including completing all the third year units in palaeontology under Dr George Thomas, before transferring to complete my degree at Monash University, studying with Dr Pat Vickers-Rich. In 1980 I completed my Honours thesis on the bothriolepid placoderm fishes of Victoria, then went on to do a PhD on the Mt Howitt fish fauna. I was then faced with the hardest challenge of my life—getting a job in palaeontology.

In 1983 I was awarded a Rothmans Fellowship, not much of a salary but an opportunity to work anywhere in Australia and do research, so I spent the next two years working in Canberra with Professor Ken Campbell and Drs Gavin Young and Richard Barwick. Those were the two most productive years of my life, and my research set me up for a Queen Elizabeth II Fellowship, so I headed over to Western Australia to have a crack at the Gogo Formation fishes. When those funds ran out, I had to look elsewhere for a job. Luckily there was a vacancy for a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Tasmania, working on a South-East Asian project under Dr Clive Burrett. The catch was that I had to work on any fossil group I was told to, but if we found fishes then I could describe them. As we did find fish fossils, in both Thailand and Vietnam, there was a lot to keep me busy. I also got to go to Antarctica for the first time that year.

The biggest break in my life came in late 1989, when I was offered a permanent position as Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the Western Australian Museum. And that's where I am today.

Reflecting on those early days as a professional palaeontologist, I had a revelation. I still have the very first fossil I ever found, the trilobite from Ruddocks Quarry. It's now in the Western Australian Museum, and one day I will hand it over to them, if they really want it. Yes, I admit I'm attached to it. It's not important as a scientific specimen— it's just a poorly-preserved bug butt (pygidium). The revelation came as I was thumbing through some old copies of the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria. I found Dr John Shergold's paper which described the trilobite fauna of the Ruddocks Quarry site at Lilydale, published in 1968, four years after I had collected my trilobites. There, in the clear photographic plates, was my trilobite pygidium. In that paper the specimens were named as a new species, Acastefrontosa (Shergold 1968).

So the specimens I had found in 1964 belonged to a new, undescribed species, in fact to a genus that had not been previously recorded in Australia. As an amateur collector, I only knew the fossils as interesting-looking bits of rock that I could keep in a box at home. But they could have been of use to Dr Shergold, who at the time was studying the whole range of trilobites collected from that site.

I have told this story last of all, opening up a bit of my personal life, because the revelation that my first fossil was a new species hit me like a charging wombat. Any fossil collector who isn't a trained specialist can't fully appreciate the significance of their fossils—they often appear to be rather paltry-looking bits of what were once more complete specimens. The point is, unless collectors have some sort of professional input, both the scientific significance and the full commercial value of fossils will never be truly understood. This is not to take away from those ardent and knowledgeable collectors who do recognise the significance of most of the fossils they collect, it's only to point out an example where someone can quite easily stumble upon a significant find and not realise it. After all, I did.

We need professional palaeontologists to evaluate and signify discoveries, to place them in the big scheme of evolution, the unfolding story of life. We also need fossil hunters. Good ones may one day be the next generation of professional palaeontologists, contribute to the growing collections and new exhibitions of our major museums, or provide teaching specimens to schools and universities. But even if they don't, they may remain aficionados, lovers of fine fossils and avid collectors all their lives.

My final plea is for academics, governments and those with a commercial interest in fossils to open new lines of communication, to work together and to find a common ground where all can benefit. I hope this book is a step towards such a partnership. And to all the fossil hunters out there—keep looking. Your new species is probably just around the corner.

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