Extreme Excavations: Alaska & Australia
Australia: Down-Under Dinosaur Dig Turns Expectations Upside-Down
By Sonya Senkowsky
Editor, Alaska Science Outreach
I sit down with Alaska Museum of Natural History board member Katch Bacheller knowing we have at least one thing in common: We both volunteered to work on our first dinosaur digs at sites located in the Earth’s upper latitudes, with leaders in polar dinosaur research.
In fact, our experiences couldn’t have been more different.
Bacheller’s volunteer work involved assisting a research team led by Tom Rich and Patricia Vickers-Rich, head researchers of the Dinosaur Dreaming project being undertaken along the south coast of Victoria, Australia developers of the “Dinosaurs of Darkness” polar dinosaur exhibit now visiting Anchorage.
Unlike the remote North Slope site our team reached only by Army helicopter, the location where Bacheller worked at a beach in Inverloch, about 90 minutes’ drive from Melbourne is, if anything, a little too accessible.
The site, discovered in 1991 by dinosaur hunters from Monash University, was during the time of the dinosaurs part of a vast riverbed between Australia and Antarctica when the two continents were joined. These days, it’s part of a busy, well-visited public park.
About 20 to 50 volunteers work the site at any time. Distractions can be expected daily in the form of inquiring tourists even nudists. Volunteer duties include putting up “police line” type barriers to keep the inquisitive at a distance, or taking turns answering questions and giving tours. And relaxation time involves a hot tub.
But working this site was no typical day on the beach.
The fossils the researchers sought weren’t just sitting there in the sand, but were embedded in a shelf of rock underwater. To dig out the rock’s secrets, volunteers had to work during low tides, the only time the site was not submerged.
After a morning meal, or “brekky,” the crew began every day not by digging, but by retrieving “the system,” their name for the structure that had been devised to keep the excavated areas from filling with sand and seawater. Steel rods sunk into the dig site established the perimeter. Into the bottom were placed large milk containers filled with water, held down by layers of mesh and tarps bolted to the rods.
Once the system was pulled out, volunteers began the back-breaking work of pulling out the rock slab floor chunk by chunk. The fossils inside were not only wet and hard to distinguish against stone, but were mostly encased in rock. To get to them meant first breaking off large slabs, then breaking these into smaller pieces.
“You’re breaking rock like a convict, so it’s not easy,” Bacheller said.
Dinosaur fossils aren’t the only finds researchers here seek. Bacheller has since had the luck to uncover one of the most exciting finds of the dig, she said, a small mammal jaw representing among the first placental mammals known to Australia.
Bacheller’s experience digging for polar dinosaurs changed her life and career. “I love extinction,” she says—or at least she loves to learn about it. She’s now pursuing a degree in geology at the University of Alaska, is a board member with the Alaska Museum of Natural History, and plans to continue to return to Dinosaur Dreaming in a role she calls “evil overseer,” helping with coordination.
“The dig changed my perspective on everything,” she says.
Editor’s note: Specimens retrieved on similar Australian digs (including at least one found by Bacheller) are part of the exhibit now on display at the Alaska Museum of Natural History (see related links, above right).