By Tayla Kershaw

YOU may call Bass Coast home, but did you know it was once the home of polar dinosaurs?

Although they have been prospecting and digging on the local coast for 40 years, paleontologists, husband and wife team, Patricia and Thomas Rich still come across people unaware of the land’s prehistoric legacy.

“We started exploring (along the Bass Coast) in the late ‘70s along with our team of volunteers,” Dr Patricia Vickers-Rich said.

“At the time, there was only one known dinosaur bone from Victoria, a claw, which was found near Eagles Nest in 1903 by William Hamilton Ferguson.

Working with Parks Victoria, our team has since increased the collection rather stupendously.

Over time the team has found a few partial skeletons and lots of isolated bones and jaws of dinosaurs which once lived near the South Pole more than 125 million years ago, in the early Cretaceous, as well as remains of mammals, turtles, a crocodile- like amphibian, fish, and even a giant flea.

“People know about the Triceratops skeleton coming into Australia, but most have no idea about the dinosaurs in their own backyard, which are really very special because they were toughies – they lived near that South Pole of the time when Australia was connected to Antarctica, so they experienced three months of winter darkness – but at least there were no ice sheets at that time.”

Local discoveries have raised questions as to why the polar dinosaurs could not survive extinction and if they were possibly warm-blooded.

The “Cape Paterson Claw” found by William Hamilton Ferguson in 1903, just to the west of Eagles Nest along the Bass Coast. This was the first dinosaur found in Australia and led to the Dinosaur Dreaming and Dinosaur Cove expeditions in the late 70s.

A “prized discovery” by the Rich team was the Leaellynasaura amicagraphica skull (and likely associated partial skeleton) that suggested the dinosaur could have been active during polar winters – its optic lobe’s which processed the incoming light signals were enormous – amazingly a brain impression was preserved in this unique specimen.

It was named to honour the Riches’ daughter Leaellyn and after the “friends” (amica) that work with the Riches and the National Geographic Society (graphica) which has provided funds over years to support this project.

This discovery of Leaellynasaura was made at “Dinosaur Cove” on the Otway Coast, which has rocks that are just a bit younger than those along the Bass Coast.

The Riches’ journey, along with their more than 700 volunteers over the years to the discoveries, is documented in their recent book Dinosaurs of Darkness, published by Indiana University Press.

While there was a small excavation carried out recently, Pat said the pandemic has made it difficult to plan more activity in 2020 – 2021.

One activity that will continue is the rock breaking weekends as part of the “Dinosaur Dreaming Project” to be held on the premises of Lesley Kool, a long-term employee and now volunteer in retirement.

This ground-breaking project made its debut in 1984 on the Otway Coast, and later Flat Rocks near Inverloch in 1994.

The meticulous process of excavation takes hours at a time but has led to the discovery of many local fossils which are collected under the supervision of Dinosaur Dreaming dig coordinator and Wonthaggi resident Mrs Kool.

Mrs Kool is tasked with putting specimens found under the microscope at her home laboratory.

Volunteers from Wonthaggi, Inverloch and the public have been swift to raise their hands and take part, which is crucial for the longevity of this project over more than 40 years.

Without them, the fossils would still be embedded in the rocks.

Although there are many people who don’t know about the dinosaurs, Dr Vickers-Rich is grateful to these volunteers who dedicate their time to the digs.

Otherwise, almost nothing would be known about this ancient biota.

“We have used our own money to support these projects as well as a number of grants we have been able to source. It’s our choice and if we, and many other of our volunteers, hadn’t made these contributions, these bones, fossil trackways, possible dinosaur burrows, etc, most likely would not have been discovered. We have had hundreds of people come through and donate their time and money,” she said.

Almost none of these volunteers had previous fossil digging experience but succumbed to the allure of uncovering Bass Coast’s prehistoric past – especially its dinosaurs.