Hell and high water: The digs of Dinosaur Cove
Robyn Molan (Australia)
In an article in the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Journal (Issue 6, 2008) I dubbed the period between 1984 and 1994 ‘a decade of dedication’, thanks to the persistence of an American-Australian team headed by palaeontologists Tom Rich and his wife, Pat Vickers-Rich. (Tom wrote an article for Deposits, entitled Tunnelling for dinosaurs in the High Arctic.) This was the decade that brought to the world the fascinating polar dinosaurs of south-eastern Australia and the eventual naming of three new dinosaur species – with a few other surprises along the way.
Two hundred and twenty kilometres west of Melbourne, on the Otway Coast of Victoria, Australia, is a remote and little-known inlet. Set in a stretch of steep, rugged shoreline, this isolated cove is pounded by the Southern Ocean and blasted by Antarctic winds. Nearby, the world-renowned rocky sentinels, ‘The Twelve Apostles’ (see the cover of Issue 20 of Deposits), stand testament to the power of wave and wind, as they beckon tourists who travel the Great Ocean Road.
The excavation at Dinosaur Cove, as the inlet later became known, was the first major dinosaur dig conducted in Victoria. For several weeks each summer, the Rich family, and a crew of hardy volunteers, battled untold obstacles to wrestle fossils from the base of the cliff. It was gruelling, dirty and dangerous work, but subsequent scientific research on what was found would expand our knowledge of Australia’s incredible polar dinosaurs and challenge the scientific community’s assumptions of how these animals lived.
To walk in the footprints of these ancient Victorians, we must first rewind to the late Early Cretaceous period. 115Ma to 120Ma, Australia was situated over the South Pole, her southeast coast joined to Antarctica to form the supercontinent, Gondwana. If climatic conditions then were even remotely similar to Antarctica today, the Gondwanan dinosaurs must have experienced cold winters and months of near-darkness – a challenge not confronted by any known reptile. The Dinosaur Cove discoveries revealed that Victoria’s polar dinosaurs thrived in such conditions, some foraging all winter long, rather than hibernating as cold climate reptiles do today. Their story makes fascinating reading, as does the larger story of the trials and triumphs involved in their discovery.
As so often happens in life, a chain of random events brought Tom and Pat on a collision course with Dinosaur Cove. The first of these was their migration to Australia from the USA in 1973, so that Pat could complete her post-doctoral Fullbright Fellowship at Monash University in Melbourne. Tom soon found employment as Curator of Palaeontology at the Museum Victoria, where he attracted the attention of a group of dinosaur enthusiasts called ‘Friends of The Museum of Victoria’. The ‘Friends’ were hell-bent on holding a dinosaur dig and eventually convinced Tom to take them to an enticing deposit on the Otway Coast, an hour and a half’s drive west of Melbourne.
The location was none other than Dinosaur Cove, with the relevant deposit being an ancient, fossil-rich stream channel running along the edge of the shore platform and disappearing deep into the cliff face. The site had been discovered in 1980 by Monash University student, Tim Flannery, and faculty member of the University of New South Wales, Mike Archer, while out fossicking with the Rich family.
No sooner had Tom Rich committed to a field trip to Dinosaur Cove, he began to have grave reservations.
This would be no ordinary dig. The Dinosaur Cove deposit was at the base of a steep, slippery, 90m-cliff, subject to huge tides and extreme weather. Tom’s proposal to have amateurs tunnelling into a vertical cliff with hydraulic drills was met with reactions of horror, but with stubborn persistence, he was able to wade through the mountain of red tape needed to appease the authorities and gather the resources required. With the invaluable support of Bill Loads, manager of Victorian operations for Atlas Copco, who provided the drilling equipment, the stage was set for the commencement of a project that would provide a window into the world of polar dinosaurs.
It was summer 1984 when the inaugural 16-day dig got under way. Base camp was established in farmer, David Denney’s paddock, two kilometres inland, away from the wind and spray of the cliff edge. Nicknamed ‘Dinoville’, the camp consisted of old army tents and a barbeque.
At the cove, volunteers faced a terrifying descent down the cliff face with only the aid of a rope. The heavier gear was carried down by helicopter, but the lighter equipment had to be convoyed, hand-over-hand, to the base of the cliff. Despite everyone’s apprehension, it wasn’t long before the equipment was installed and drilling into the cliff got under way.
The first year proved to be a baptism of fire, with enthusiasm quickly giving way to frustration. Leaking hydraulic lines and variable air pressure caused valuable time to be lost. For Tom Rich, equipment failures usually necessitated an exhausting climb up the cliff and a midnight dash to Melbourne. Fortunately, Bill Loads came to the rescue, boosting air pressure with a ‘top-up’ receiver tank, located at the base of the cliff. Bill’s generosity and support would be repeated time and again over the next ten years, but, in that first difficult year, he quietly insisted that the equipment-hire was never paid for.
Dinosaur Cove soon showed the diggers her true colours. On good days, the sea was a millpond; on bad days the chilling southerly winds whipped the sea to a frenzy and the crack of waves breaking on the rocks could be heard at the camp, two kilometres away. Round-the-clock drilling shifts were soon abandoned when an unusually high tide entered the tunnel, washing away the equipment, including Bill Load’s new air receiver. Fortunately, no-one was in the tunnel at the time and the receiver was revived. However, the sight of their equipment strewn up and down the shoreline was a sobering lesson for all.
By the end of the inaugural dig, the team had drilled a healthy, 1.3m tunnel into the cliff, sufficient to expose the ancient stream channel, which had flowed parallel to the rock face. This tunnel site was named Dinosaur Cove East when Pat Vickers-Rich found a second, more exposed site, to the west of the entrance.
By the end of the first dig, equal quantities of fossils had been collected at both sites, including several significant dinosaur bones and a tooth. In spite of their significance, the discovery of dinosaur remains was somewhat disappointing for Tom. His research proposal to the National Geographic Society had been entitled ‘The Ghastly Blank’ and he had hoped to shed light on Victoria’s early birds and mammals, not its reptiles.
The summer of 1985 saw the second dig get under way. A more modest affair, this time there were no helicopters – volunteers had to resort to bamboo poles slung over their shoulders to transfer heavy gear down the cliff. A fossiliferous layer spreading out onto the foreshore from Dinosaur Cove East was the first target. It quickly came to be known as ‘Lake Copco’, as it reached swimming pool proportions and had to be pumped out after every high tide.
In addition to Dinosaur Cove and Dinosaur Cove East, a third site was soon identified, which came to bear the nickname ‘Slippery Rock’. Seven weeks later, the three locations had yielded several hundred bone fragments and 368 bags of fossil-bearing rock.
The Dinosaur Cove project attracted volunteers from all walks of life. Many were local university students, lured by Tom Rich’s line, “We can’t pay you, but we can feed you”. Michelle Hird (née Colwell), Natalie Schroder and Helen Wilson (née Brown) were among this high-spirited group. They recall that the food was far from edible in those early years, with no refrigeration, a tight budget and few chefs in camp. Michelle remembers ‘recycled’ rice pudding with chunks of tuna floating in it! Therefore, Tom’s promise of a cubic metre of chocolate to the first person to find a mammal bone must have been an irresistible incentive.
Life in Dinoville was a challenge to stay warm and dry, with tents and structures vulnerable to storms, wind and mildew. There were no showers, the closest being at Lavers Hill, 13km away. Overflowing portaloos, and visits from local spiders and snakes added to the stress. Helen Wilson says people’s reactions to the living conditions ranged from “indifference to complaining to shock and hysteria”.
Fortunately for all concerned, volunteer John Hermann was invaluable in improving camp conditions. A jack-of-all-trades and a collector of old machinery, John had the gift of being able to construct a solution to any problem. He quickly earned the title ‘Mayor of Dinoville’ thanks to his constructions, which included a kitchen and mess hut, a water trailer and lime outhouses. For the 1986 dig, the ever-resourceful John installed a flying fox/aerial tramway between the top and bottom of the cliff. It was an ingenious contraption, which said goodbye to the bamboo poles for good and dramatically hastened the transfer of materials up and down the cliff.
1986’s dig included paying-participants from Earthwatch, an American organisation for science enthusiasts, who joined the volunteers. The ‘yanks’ quickly became popular with the students. Bill Hopkins, a three-time Earthwatch volunteer from Alaska, recalls that this had a lot to do with their trips to the local pub, where the cashed-up Earthwatcher’s found themselves paying for the destitute Aussie ‘kids’.
There was never a dull moment in camp according to Helen Wilson, with spirits highest in the evenings after a few drinks. There were jam sessions and sing-alongs with banjos and homemade instruments, stargazing on blankets in the paddock and playing practical jokes. Student, Mick Whitelaw, recalls that the safety-conscious Tom Rich went ‘nuts’ when he peered over the cliff to see a pair of legs emerging from under a rock, only to discover that they were a pair of stuffed trousers with boots on!
Down at the cliff face, the camaraderie and one-upmanship saw the girls giving the guys as good as they got. Bill Hopkins notes “All the girls and women seemed to love working with the noisy tools” then adds cheekily, “all the boys and men loved watching them do it”. It wasn’t uncommon to get covered in mud from the water-fed drills, making a dip in Lake Copco at high tide an inviting prospect.
By the close of the 1986 dig, three times as many bones had been found as the previous year, with two-thirds of them from the new ‘Slippery Rock’ site. Here, ‘undermining’ of the overhanging cliff had allowed quick exposure to the deposit. It was clear from this that the way forward was to go deeper into the cliff, but it was clearer still that this would require more than pneumatic tools. Tom Rich cringed – if getting the official nod to jackhammer had been difficult, what would the authorities say about dynamite?
Delays in getting an explosives permit and finding suitably qualified shot-firers nearly de-railed the 1987 schedule, but, once again, Tom’s persistence saw approvals given and suitable people recruited. Like the earlier pneumatic tool work, the use of explosives came with its own set of problems and challenges. Each round of blasting produced a fresh pile of rubble, which had to be cleared from the tunnels. A cantankerous winch-driven ‘bogger’ was employed for this purpose, but, due to breakdowns, volunteers often had to resort to shovel and wheelbarrow. It was exhausting, dirty work – suffice to say the local Laundromat did a roaring trade.
Adverse weather and high seas plagued progress in 1987. The first (west) tunnel took a fortnight to complete and was located near the western extreme of Slippery Rock. The second (east) tunnel was completed a fortnight later. Because neither of these tunnels produced significant finds, Tom decided to blast a cross-tunnel connecting the two. This was set back from the entrance so that a column of rock, nicknamed ‘the pillar’, remained in front of it to support the roof. Once completed, the team began to remove the floor of the cross-tunnel.
Initially disappointing, this area was to reveal the first jackpot of the Dinosaur Cove decade. Here, an exquisitely preserved tiny skull was found. It was jet black with tiny teeth clearly visible. The endocast of the brain was preserved in detail, displaying minute features such as the pineal gland, optic and cerebral lobes. Later identified as a juvenile of a new species of hypsilophodontid (a small, bird-hipped, bipedal herbivore), the specimen was named Leaellynasaura amicagraphica, after the Rich’s daughter Leaellyn, the Friends of the Museum of Victoria and the National Geographic Society.
Unfortunately, in the darkness of the cross tunnel, a string of articulated vertebrae and associated limb bones found close to Leaellynasaura’s skull were thrown outside on the mullock heap. Michelle Hird admits to carrying out what she thought was overburden, and to tripping and dropping it into the ocean at the precise moment she realised it wasn’t. The precious pieces were frantically retrieved, but unfortunately a full skeleton was not to be had.
The remainder of 1987, and all of 1988, were devoted to bone preparation and scientific analysis. Lesley Kool, a dedicated volunteer with a passion for fossil preparation, began the delicate task of freeing Leaellynasaura’s skull from the surrounding rock. Once exposed, it was immediately apparent that this was something special. The brain case had large optic lobes when compared to other hypsilophodontids of lower palaeolatitudes. It was obvious to the team that Leaellynasaura had unusually high visual acuity and this could have only evolved for one reason – to allow the animal to remain active during periods of prolonged darkness.
Subsequent scientific analysis of the fossil material, by a range of scientists including geochemists, palaeobotanists, palaeontologists and geologists, soon revealed more unusual and exciting information. Stress indicators, called ‘lines of arrested growth’, were absent in the hypsilophodontid bones, suggesting that this group had not hibernated like the larger polar dinosaurs. Analysis of the climate revealed mean temperatures as low as -2˚C, leading to the conclusion that the hypsilophodontids may have been warm-blooded. It was soon apparent that Leallynasaura, like birds today, may have maintained a constant body temperature by foraging all winter long.
Over half of the Dinosaur Cove bones collected were from hypsilophodontids. In addition to Leallynasaura, a second hypsilophodontid was identified as new to science, based on its dentition, and was named Atlascopcosaurus loadsi in honour of Atlas Copco and its Victorian manager, Bill Loads. A further three were recognised, including Fulgotherium australe. Such abundance of hypsilophodontids suggests that polar conditions particularly suited this group. In addition, there was a clear size-bias towards smaller bones. This dwarfism may have reflected the confined territory of Gondwana.
Today, ongoing co-operative research on Australian ornithopods suggests that the family ‘Hipsilophodontidae’ is no longer valid, because not all dinosaurs in this group share a common ancestor. David Pickering, former volunteer and current Collection Manager of Museum Victoria, says the jury is still out on exactly how many different species are represented in the Dinosaur Cove material and notes that the collection is still frequently studied.
In the summer of 1989, diggers returned to the field, where the focus was on Slippery Rock. Here, the cross-tunnel was blasted out, a metre at a time. Some quality finds were uncovered, including the pelvis of an unidentified theropod and some ‘weird’ leg bones from a leaellynasaur, which Lesley Kool counts as one of the highlights of her work on the project. She recalls that, as she worked on the limbs, she became aware that one of the tibiae had broken and knitted, and that it was shortened and had secondary bone deposition. What Lesley had uncovered was the world’s oldest case of osteomyelitis, a chronic bone infection. David Pickering confirms excitedly that this dinosaur limped around for up to two years. He says the fact that it wasn’t predated soon after injury suggests Leaellynasaura was a social animal that may have lived in groups.
By 1990, conditions had improved considerably, both in camp and down at the cove. An enormous storage shed had been constructed to protect caravans and gear from corrosion, a platform-scaffold had been erected over the Slippery Rock entrance and redundant tunnels had been fitted out with shelving. At Slippery Rock, the east and west tunnels had been extended into the cliff and a second cross-tunnel cut.
Meanwhile, a steady stream of fossils was being excavated from Dinosaur Cove East, under the guidance of volunteer, Nick van Klaveren.
One of these was the biggest bone to be recovered – a 43cm femur of Australia’s first ornithomimosaur and one of the oldest species of that group. This exciting addition to the theropod fossil record was named Timimus hermannii after Tim Flannery, young Tim Rich and John Hermann.
In 1991, the challenge at Slippery Rock was to construct a man-made pillar in the first cross-tunnel, so that the fossil-rich rocky pillar currently shoring up the roof could be removed. It was a back-breaking effort, which involved convoying bags of sand, gravel and cement from camp to shore, mixing them in a cement mixer and pouring the mix into formwork. A month after starting, with the end in sight, Tom Rich bet every worker a carton of beer that they couldn’t finish by midnight. It was a nail-biting race won with eight minutes to spare, leaving the crew too exhausted to enjoy the beer, which had been waiting on ice all evening.
Although Tom returned for a brief visit in 1992, it was not until 1993 that the team was to finally remove the rocky pillar. This final episode in the Dinosaur Cove digs was to bring a reward that would not be realised for over three years and which would see Tom Rich putting in a call to Cadbury’s for a cubic metre of chocolate. In preparing what was marked as a piece of turtle, Leslie Kool had uncovered the humerus of a prehistoric monotreme. Dinosaur Cove had produced its first mammal! The monotremes are small, egg-laying mammals and it was soon apparent that this one was an echidna-like animal, with a sprawling stance. Tom named the new discovery Kyrorycytes cadburyi, after its cold-digging habits and the chocolate manufacturer, who was generous enough to help him keep his promise.
In 1993, ‘The extinction of Dinosaur Cove’ party was held. After ten long years, the tunnels were boarded up and Dinoville was given back to the snakes and spiders. Excavating a site as demanding as Dinosaur Cove had been a bold move and all those involved agree they were part of something special – something they are unlikely to experience again. However, although the Dinosaur Cove era is over, Australia’s polar dinosaur story is far from complete and continues to this day at more accessible sites closer to Melbourne. We await the next chapter with anticipation. Who knows what will turn up next to expand our knowledge of the former inhabitants of Australia’s ancient polar landscape?
This article (and photos) is condensed from A Decade of Dedication: the digs of Dinosaur Cove; Issue 6 Australian Age of Dinosaurs Journal, 2008. www.australianageofdinosaurs.com.
Dinosaurs of Darkness. Thomas H. Rich and Patricia Vickers-Rich. Allen & Unwin 2001.
Walking with Dinosaurs. Episode 5, Spirits of the Silent Forest, BBC, 1999.