Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Fossil Sites Can Co-exist with Ecotourists

By John Long

Palaeo-ecotours could generate income for research and conservation at fossil sites.

Last week I was collecting fossils in the spectacular country west of Alice Springs, in the West MacDonnell Ranges. Although we visited a well-known site discovered in 1973 by Dr Gavin Young of the Australian National University, we still found a significant number of important new specimens of ancient fishes of Devonian age. At least two are new to science, and one will certainly shed important light on the big evolutionary transition of fishes to land animals when it is prepared and described in detail.

While out there we also spent some time exploring for new sites in the region, which is home to a very thick succession of Devonian rocks that extends around the Amadeus Basin for hundreds of kilometres. From the air one sees the ranges snaking off in both directions as far as the eye can see. For me it’s a vast untapped resource for Australia’s future.

It staggers the imagination that so little of the Australian land mass has been thoroughly explored for fossils by expert eyes. If we take the MacDonnell Ranges, I would estimate that less than 1% has been thoroughly searched by palaeontologists for fossils, so there exists a huge potential for exciting scientifically groundbreaking new discoveries. Not only will such discoveries fill our museums with new specimens to attract tourist interest, but in some instances, where the fossils come from spectacular mountain ranges, the journey there could also be part of the ecotourist experience.

Tourism has many facets, and providing detailed information about the Earth’s fascinating history and the evolution of life by visiting fossil sites is one we are novices at here in Australia. There are some cases where we have done this well, like the regular tours to the Canowindra fish fossil sites and other NSW sites by Gondwana Dreaming. However, there are many other well-known fossil sites that could be developed as ecotours working with local land owners, councils and indigenous stakeholders.

Many of the best-known fossil sites in Australia are visited by academic tours put on for conference delegates as part of the program. What’s to stop these same tours being run on a regular basis for members of the public? It would be another way for scientists to generate income towards their research and, in the right hands could help protect sites through regular patrols.

Ultimately a small visitor centre with permanent rangers based at the sites is what is needed for our most significant sites. Such positions will enable 100% protection of fossil sites, host tours for the public, and regularly collect fossils for our museums and research groups.

The newly discovered second set of fossil mammal sites near the world heritage Riversleigh fossil sites in Queensland, dubbed “New Riversleigh” by Prof Mike Archer of The University of NSW (see Browse, p.10), is another prime example of how unexplored northern regions of Australia can yield highly significant new sites. Identified in 2013 from satellite imagery, the new sites offer a huge potential for significant discoveries, and might one day lead to expansion of the current World Heritage site boundaries.

As a palaeontologist there’s nothing better than getting out into the field and finding a stunning new specimen. We need to share around that joy and excitement with members of the public, and school children in particular, if we want to raise public awareness of our significant fossil heritage, and develop ecotourism to the extent where it might one day even play a role in finding new fossil sites.

Groups like 4WD clubs could be brought in to help the search, or even the army. In 1991 I joined the Perth Logistics Battalion searching for dinosaurs up north in Western Australia as a training exercise to teach the new recruits about remote four wheel driving and field camp logistics. Synergies like this need to be rekindled.

John Long is Strategic Professor in Palaeontology at Flinders University, and current President of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.