Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Magic of Finding Fossils

By John Long

As a child, John Long’s interest in fossils was first stoked when he discovered a trilobite. As an adult he discovered that the species was unknown to science at the time.

Many people like to collect fossils as a hobby. It not only gets you outside in the fresh air but you might just make a spectacular discovery that has major scientific implications.

I began collecting fossils in 1964 aged seven, with a discovery of a small fossil that seemed rather insignificant at the time. I accompanied my school classmate and his father to a small quarry in Lilydale, Victoria, where we collected trilobites, crinoid stems and brachiopods. I still remember the day well as I cracked open a rock and saw an impression of a trilobite tail staring at me, exposed to daylight for the first time in more than 400 million years.

Collecting fossils grew into an obsession. My collection grew over the years as I was fortunate to visit many other sites throughout Victoria. My father sometimes drove me and my friends to out-of-town sites to collect. My collection grew and contained, among other things, a giant cowry shell from near Mornington, more than 20 different species of fossil shark teeth from Beaumaris and sites near Geelong, fossil kangaroo bones from the western districts lakes, and some complete Cretaceous fishes from Koonwarra.

My obsession with fossils eventually turned into a career. After finishing my university studies and 6 years of postdocs around Australia I eventually landed a job as Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the Western Australian Museum in 1989. Finally I had a home for my precious fossil collection, so I donated the lot to that museum. You can still see some of my best childhood finds, like the perfect Koonwarra fish Leptolepis koonwarriensis on display in the Diamonds to Dinosaurs gallery that we built in 1999.

But it was not until 45 years after the discovery of that first trilobite that its true significance became clear. When I had found the fossil it could not be identified by any of the specialists at the museum to whom I showed it, beyond saying it was a trilobite’s pygidium.

In 2004 I took up a position at Museum Victoria, and one day I found myself pondering the small trilobite I’d unearthed as a kid. Unlike the other fossils which I’d given to the WA Museum, it wasn’t seen as significant so I had held onto it as a souvenir of my childhood.

I decided one day that it needed to be identified. After thumbing through a number of palaeontology journals I came to a paper describing it. The late Dr Jake Shergold had named my trilobite Acaste frontosa as a new species in 1968.

The revelation then hit me that in 1964, when I found the fossil, it was an unknown new species. It was something totally new to science, yet I didn’t know this when I found it. Perhaps many undescribed new species in private collections are also waiting to be discovered.

Last year I was working on a paper about the origins of vertebrate copulation. We had one incomplete specimen showing the male clasper or reproductive organ on a placoderm fish, and after the first submission the journal rejected our paper as we didn’t have enough data. Then, almost like magic, some private collectors in the UK and The Netherlands came to our rescue with complete perfect specimens showing the claspers intact. They immediately donated their best specimens to the British Museum in London so we could complete our paper and resubmit it, and it was finally published in Nature (AS, December 2014, pp.29–31). The story made headlines around the world, thanks to their generosity.

I also thank them for acknowledging that ownership of a private fossil collection includes a responsibility to ensure that new and scientifically important material is made publically accessible in a museum or university collection.

John Long is Strategic Professor in Palaeontology at Flinders University.