Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Australia Needs More State Fossil Emblems

By John Long

Official fossil emblems connect a state to its deep past, yet only two Australian states have them.

New South Wales has officially announced that its state fossil emblem will be the Devonian fish Mandageria fairfaxi, a sarcopterygian (lobe-finned fish) that grew to nearly 2 metres long. It was a voracious predator whose remains have been found at the famous Canowindra fossil site. It joins Western Australia as only the second state in Australia to have formally proclaimed a fossil emblem.

In the USA every state has an official state fossil emblem as well as floral and faunal emblems. The fossil emblem embodies the importance of understanding the evolution of the region in question, and emphasises that teaching evolution is vital. The first states to embrace this concept were Louisiana, Maine and Georgia in 1976.

Australia’s first state fossil emblem, the Devonian fish Mcnamaraspis kaprios from the Gogo sites in Western Australia, was proclaimed in 1995. I know it well as I found and named the fossil but wasn’t the person who selected it as the emblem. That was a democratic process put in place by the Western Australian government. The idea came from the Dianella-Sutherland Primary School, which heard about the US state fossil emblems and lobbied the WA government. Next came a public call for suitable fossils that would fit the bill.

At the time I served as Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the Western Australian Museum. My job was to provide information about various suitable fossils for an emblem to the public. The school sent a delegation to the Museum to see some suitable fossils and decided that Mcnamaraspis was the one they wanted to support.

For about 3 months the State’s fossil emblem committee, which I chaired, received nominations for suitable fossils. These included stromatolites, brachiopods, marine reptiles, crinoids and the Gogo fish. The Gogo fish was unanimously selected by the committee due to the overwhelming support it received – a petition signed by nearly 1000 people with numerous letters of support from leading palaeontologists around the world. This contrasted to other nominations which consisted of small groups of advocates outlining their case in a single letter.

This raises the question: why don’t the other Australian states select their own state fossil emblems? Two of our states, Queensland and South Australia, are host to World Heritage fossil sites (Naracoorte Caves and Riversleigh) yet they don’t have a fossil emblem to promote these sites.

With fossil sites under threat at places like Beaumaris in Victoria, the timing for a state fossil emblem campaign couldn’t be better. Such a campaign raises public awareness about fossils, geology and evolution, and serves to promote knowledge about our most important fossil sites and their unique faunas or floras.

Victoria has a host of options ranging from well-preserved early fossil toothed whales like Janjucetus to very early land plants like Baragwanathia, excellent Ordovician graptolites, superb megafauna like the well-preserved Bacchus Marsh Diptrotodon and a variety of extraordinary Cretaceous animals that once lived in a polar environment. These include dinosaurs (e.g. Leaellynasaura), the giant amphibian Koolasuchus and early terrestrial mammals like Ausktribosphenos.

Tasmania has a variety of suitable fossil emblems in its very well-preserved Triassic amphibians and reptiles, including the Tasmaniosaurus and Derwentia, both named after state landmarks.

Queensland could run into contention finding a suitable state fossil emblem as it has many great contenders among its exciting dinosaurs, such as Minmi, Muttaburrasaurus, Diamantinasaurus and Australovenator. It also has a wealth of diverse and unique fossil mammals from its Riversleigh sites, like Yalkiparodon, Ekaltadeta and Nimbadon.

South Australia has the best well-preserved giant short-faced fossil kangaroos like Procoptodon, and well-preserved marsupial lions at Naracoorte Caves, as well as world-famous Ediacaran fossils from the Flinders Ranges (e.g. Dickinsonia, Spriggina). It is also home to Early Cambrian soft-bodied fossils from Kangaroo Island, all of which could be put to great use promoting tourism to the State.

So it’s time to rally and get started if your state doesn’t have one already. Lobby your state politicians and get the idea on the drawing board. The rest will soon be history!

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