Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Developing Fossil Sites for Education and Employment

By John Long

A combination of active scientific research and a thriving local tourism industry is the model that many countries can adapt to protect and develop their most significant fossil sites.

I am writing this column from Quebec, Canada, where I’ve been working with colleagues on fossil specimens that come from the World Heritage fossil site at Miguasha in the beautiful Gaspe Peninsula. This site is Devonian age, about 380 million years old, and has a diverse fauna of very well-preserved fish and plant fossils.

The site was discovered more than 150 years ago but is still actively worked each year by employees of the National Park Service. Even though all of the fossils have been described and published, there is a great deal of new research still going on at the site, with some highly significant new finds still being researched.

More significantly the site, which comprises a cliff of bluish sedimentary rock exposures along the picturesque Chaleur Bay, has a purpose-built museum sitting above it that opens each year for the summer months. At its peak it employs up to 20 locals as visitors flock to the museum to see the fossils and pay to have an hour-long tour of the fossil site by an expert guide.

The key to all of this activity is the fact that it has been made a World Heritage site and the Quebec National Parks saw an opportunity to develop the site. They did this well before it became World Heritage as it was a site in need of protection from illicit collectors. Now, because Of its designation, the site is fully protected and worked each year as the museum staff open up a new dig site and actively excavate the fossil beds to add new specimens to the museum for research and visitor enjoyment.

This model works in South Australia at the Naracoorte World Heritage site, with tours and research being the main hub of activity, yet its partner World Heritage site at Riversleigh in the north-west of Queensland hosts mainly scientific expeditions and there is no on-site museum built there yet.

The main reason I visited Quebec was an invitation to collaborate on a very important new research project with Prof Richard Cloutier of the Université du Québec in Rimouski. If not for the annual tourist activities at the site, some of these new fossils would never be discovered. These include a superb new fish, about 1.6 metres long, complete, that represents one of the closest transitionary fossils to show how fishes evolved into land mammals. Named Elpistostege watsoni, it was first described from a fragment of the skull in 1938, when it was interpreted as an early tetrapod. Today the stunning new specimens are the only such fish of this kind, similar to the famous Tiktaalik from northern Canada, that is entirely 100% complete.

The combination of active scientific research with a thriving local tourism industry is the model that many countries can adapt to protect and develop many of their most significant fossil sites. In Australia we have a least half a dozen sites of similar significance to ones like Miguasha, of all geological ages, such as the Precambrian Ediacara Hills site in South Australia, the Cambrian Emu Bay sites on Kangaroo Island, the Gogo sites in the Kimberley, the dinosaur sites in Queensland and Victoria, the opalised fossil sites in Coober Pedy and Lightning Ridge, an early mammal site at Tingemarra in Queensland, and possibly even the suburban marine fossil site at Beaumaris in Victoria.

All have such potential for tourism, and they don’t need to be designated as World Heritage to became active. They just need their states to have some vision and invest in new directions.

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