Discover Documentary #6 | Prehistoric Marine Mammals

Discover Documentary #6 | Prehistoric Marine Mammals


[MUSIC PLAYING] [GROWL] We all know that fearsome
creatures walked the earth millions of years ago. But that’s walking. What swam beneath the waves? Erich Fitzgerald is
the senior curator of vertebrate palaeontology
at Museums Victoria. Erich and his team have
made some big discoveries in the little known area of
prehistoric marine mammals. The evolution of
life on planet Earth is replete with many epics,
if you like, of evolution. And one of those
recurring themes is that all the animals that
begin their evolutionary story on land then return to water. And arguably one of the
greatest examples of this are the whales and dolphins. Australia is world famous for
its beautiful beaches and epic surf breaks. But it’s what’s underneath the
white sand and the wetsuits that, in paleo
terms, really counts. The Surf Coast of
Victoria and Australia has really some
critical characteristics that make it an important site
for fossil whale discoveries. The first one is that rocks
of the right age and type were formed there. And then critically,
those waves– the very surf itself that
makes surf coast famous– are pounding those
rocks that are exposed and eroding them, showing us
more than 20 million years of whale evolution. Jan Juc is central to
research around Australia’s ancient marine mammals. It even has its own fossil– the Janjucetus. The discovery of Janjucetus
really shifted our thinking on the origin of baleen
whales, the largest animals that have ever lived. It showed us that the earliest
baleen whales were not gentle giants, but
were relatively tiny ferocious predators. The Janjucetus is just one
of many significant fossils found on Victoria’s Surf Coast. But how do you find
all these fossils? And what to do with
them once you find them? Most fossils on the Surf
Coast are eroding out of the shore platform
under your feet where you walk along the beach. Sometimes we can
just carry them away. More often, we have to
actually excavate rock from the shoreline
with heavy equipment like saws and chisels. We all get quite excited, even
if it’s just a single bone or even part of a bone. If we can tell what
that animal is, we can look in the same
area and hope to find more. What happens next for any
fossil is always different. Often, we can pick through loose
sand and rubble to identify things like small bones
and sharks’ teeth. Sometimes we’ll use small
air-driven jackhammers to knock away rock
from the bone surface. The beach has always
brought people together. And for our team of
palaeontologists, it’s no different. We can never get out into the
field as much as we’d like to. So we like to
develop relationships with private collectors
and donors who can spend much more
time prospecting on the beaches of the Surf
Coast than we’re able to. And they’ll often contact us
when they discover a new find. Through the work of researchers
and citizen scientists, a new light is being shone
on Australia’s beaches, a light that reflects
across millions of years. [MUSIC PLAYING]

local_offerevent_note March 7, 2020

account_box Gilbert Heid


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