How a grey chunk of rock will rewrite our prehistoric past – an ancient dolphin

No one knew what lay within the grey chunk of rock – or how significant it would prove to be.

For decades it sat forgotten and unloved in a museum warehouse in Melbourne’s outer suburbs. For millennia before that, it languished on a Victorian beach.

Erich Fitzgerald with one of the dolphin fossils he removed from the Jan Juc rock.
Erich Fitzgerald with one of the dolphin fossils he removed from the Jan Juc rock.  Photo: Pat Scala

Then one wintry day in 2003 researcher Erich Fitzgerald spotted it amongst the crates and pallets.

It was the dark chocolate brown lines on the surface of the rock that caught his eye. They provided the first clue. To most of us they’d be unremarkable. But they were enough to draw him in for a closer look. Were they prehistoric bones?

The position of bones in the rock before they were extracted.
The position of bones in the rock before they were extracted. Photo: Erich Fitzgerald

“I got this surge of adrenaline and thought ‘hey wait a minute, no one else has cottoned on to what is here’,” he said.

The label stated the 100 kilogram lump had been collected by renowned palaeontologist Tom Rich in 1976 from the western end of Jan Juc beach – another hint it could contain something special.

Extracting the fossil from the 25-million-year-old rock was a big job – it took a good 12 months.

What he discovered will rewrite what we know about the prehistoric beasts that lived on our patch.

One of the fossils found in the grey rock, decades after it was retrieved from a Victorian beach.
One of the fossils found in the grey rock, decades after it was retrieved from a Victorian beach. Photo: Pat Scala

“This is the equivalent today of discovering that the rhino lived in Australia,” Dr Fitzgerald said. “In terms of the fossil record this represents an entire family that we didn’t even know lived here.”

Chipping away at the rock at a Melbourne Museum laboratory, the layer of broken rib pieces soon made way for a collection flipper bones, organised as they would be in a living animal. This was no rhino.

While the vertebrae were eroded, broken and not particularly informative, the teeth revealed what he was holding.

Here lay the fossilised remains of an extinct dolphin, belonging to a family that had never before been seen in Australian waters. The only other place in the southern hemisphere the dolphin had been found was off the south island of New Zealand, prompting Dr Fitzgerald to nickname it “the Anzac dolphin”.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald

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