Research website of Dr Gilbert Price

Live from the dig- Day 3

Our final day in the field kicked off with the same great weather that had made the past couple of days so wonderful. It’s just such a good time for field work. We only had a short day in front of us as we had to get back to Brisbane by the late afternoon, so we all got up and made our way down to the fossil site bright and early.

Marsupial tapir

Lower jaw of the marsupial tapir, Palorchestes parvus, found by Kyle on Day 2

Our first task of the day was to plaster jacket some of the larger specimens that the team had partially excavated on Day 2. The fossils included a wonderful atlas vertebra of the large wombat-like Euryzygoma, and a femur and enormous tibia of a giant long-faced kangaroo, Macropus. We’re not sure on the exact species yet, but it is one of the Pliocene guys that are closely related to the modern kangaroos of today, such as the greys, reds and wallaroos.

For the task of making the plaster jackets, we were joined by a small team of students from the Steiner School. They were super enthusiastic, and under the supervision of Joanne and myself, they did a wonderful job in jacketing the specimens. The first step was to apply soggy newspaper to the bones. This acts as a barrier between the plaster and fossils, plus also protects the bones during transport. Joanne mixed up the plaster, while Tara cut up a bunch of hessian strips. The students then soaked the hessian in the plaster and applied them to the specimens, much in the same way that a doctor might plaster a broken leg. It’s a messy job, but one of the fun parts of fieldwork!

Plastering fossils

The crew plastering a fossil femur of a giant kangaroo

While we were working on the plastering, Mel and Julien ducked off to collect a fossil that Mel had spotted yesterday- an enormous humerus of Euryzygoma. The specimen is a cracker, measuring around 70 cm in length. It was a bit of a rush job as we didn’t have the time to perform a more controlled excavation. The specimen came out well, and will eventually end up at the Queensland Museum for preparation.

We made our way back to Brisbane, arriving around 4 pm. All in all, it was a wonderful reconnaissance trip to a really significant Pliocene-aged fossil site. We got everything done that we needed, but do wish that we could spend more time out there. Our prospect for conducting future research in the area is dependent on funding. We’re desperately trying to secure research grants to continue the work. It’s a difficult climate at the moment for science and research funding, but we’re hopeful that our efforts and work achieved to-date on a shoestring budget will demonstrate to the powers-that-be that this research is particularly important and deserving of further support.

This trip would not have been possible without the generous assistance of Cec and Doris Wilkinson, the Chinchilla Gun Club, Samford Valley Steiner School, Joanne Wilkinson of the Queensland Museum, and Julien Louys of the Australian National University. Their support has been absolutely brilliant. If you followed us on the Twitter hashtag #LiveFromTheDig, we hope that you enjoyed the adventure!


Live from the dig- Day 2

WOW!!! What an awesome day! It started so well. We woke at dawn to some absolutely spectacular weather. The temperature was perfect for digging, and a faint, but crisp, breeze was gently blowing. As it turned out, it was a pretty good omen.

Dr Julien Louys with a 3.5 million year old lungfish tooth plate

Dr Julien Louys with a 3.5 million year old lungfish tooth plate

We got to the dig site early and continued on from our work the previous day. Kyle excavated an enormous kangaroo femur that he had found yesterday. Nick stumbled across the lower jaw of a giant wombat-like marsupial, Euryzygoma. It had no teeth, but there were a few other unmistakable characters that showed us that it was undoubtedly the big fella. Tara had some early frustrations, but came good in the afternoon finding a fantastic bunch of kangaroo teeth- the ancestors of today’s grey kangaroos.

I didn’t have much luck myself in the field today, but as the old saying goes, there is no ‘I’ in team! In fact, it would be fair to say that I was outshone by my student, my young padawan, Kyle. After lifting the femur, Kyle started to scratch around on the other side of the gully. And he found something cool! It was the lower jaw of a marsupial tapir, a beast called Palorchestes parvus. These things basically resembled the modern placental tapirs of Southeast Asia and South America, but had a pouch. Although these guys have been known about for over 100 years, only a handful of specimens have ever been recovered. The new specimen is going to make a really great addition to what we can learn about this bizarre animal.

Fossil croc tooth cemented into conglomerate

Fossil croc tooth cemented into conglomerate

In the afternoon, we were joined by Joanne’s husband, Mel Wilkinson. I’ve been in the field with Mel a few times before and it would be fair to say that he has a real nose for fossils. As soon as he arrived, Mel picked up a molar tooth of the marsupial lion, Thylacoleo crassidentatus. About half an hour later, Mel had uncovered another wonderful specimen of Euryzygoma– an exquisitely preserved lower jaw (we need to bring Mel out on these digs more often!).

So, our total for the day includes two types of diprotodontoid (the massively weird wombat-like marsupials including Palorchestes and Euryzygoma), about five kangaroo species such as Giant greys (Macropus pan), Giant forest wallabies (Protemnodon), and Giant hair-wallabies (Troposodon), plus a bunch of turtles, crocs, fish, and even some fossilised freshwater bivalves. All in all, a wonderful day in the field!

In the evening, we visited the Steiner School camp. Our two students, Nick and Kyle, made a short show-and-tell presentation to the Grade 10-ers about the various fossils that we had picked up over the past couple of days. Julien gave a ‘big picture’ talk on what we were doing out there, and why the palaeontological work is so important, especially in regards to how we can use the past to inform modern conservation strategies. The Steiner students are a switched-on bunch and asked a lot of great questions.

If you’re on Twitter and would like to follow our exploits live, we’ll be tweeting with the hashtag #LiveFromTheDig. One more day to go!



Live from the dig- Day 1

The best times that you can hope for at work are those days when you don’t have to actually go to work! And that’s what happened to me today. Only a few weeks in the planning, my crew and I left this morning for a fossil dig at an awesome Pliocene (3.5 million year old) fossil site near Chinchilla on the Darling Downs, around three hours drive west of Brisbane.

Euryzygoma tooth

A 3.5 million year old tooth from the weird wombat-like marsupial, Euryzygoma

Our goal of the trip: to have a scout around the area, keeping an eye out for fossils of the ancestors of our modern vertebrate faunas. We were joined on our trip by our dear friend, Joanne Wilkinson from the Queensland Museum, an awesome bunch of Grade 10 kids from the Samford Valley Steiner School, and my interstate colleague, Dr Julien Louys from the Australian National University in Canberra.

The Samford crew are undertaking a super-important mapping project in the area, plotting in all of the major fossil layers from which bones have been collected from over the past 30-odd years. My crew consists of Dr Tara Clark, PhD student Kyle Ferguson, and Honours student Nick Wiggins. Both Kyle and Nick have been on only a few fossil digs, so it’s a great opportunity for both of them to get their hands dirty and a bit of field experience under the belt. Julien works on a wide range of projects across Australia and Southeast Asia, and is particularly keen in extending his primary research into the Pliocene history of our continent.

Euryzgoma tooth

Another Euryzgoma tooth, this time a lower incisor

We left really early, making it out to the site by around mid-morning. Our first day was spent inducting the students around the fossil site, and collecting the odd bit of fossil bone here and there. Our best discoveries of the day include fossil bones of giant and weird wombat-like marsupials like the enigmatic Euryzygoma, fossils of giant grey kangaroos (Macropus pan) – the ancestors of the modern roos – plus a massive range of fossil crocodile bits and pieces. Taken together, we can see that diversity around the area was markedly different in the past. The weird marsupials are totally extinct today, and the crocs are now found only in tropical parts of Australia.

We are going to be tweeting live from the dig during the course of the trip. Some of our discoveries are featured below. If you’re on Twitter and would like to learn more, you can follow our trip with the hashtag #LiveFromTheDig. We’ll also do our best to post daily blog updates here on our progress.





Keeping your hands clean in the field

Euryzygoma premaxilla fossil from Chinchilla showing three incisor teeth

Euryzygoma premaxilla fossil from Chinchilla showing three incisor teeth

The life of a palaeontologist isn’t all that glamorous. Most of my time is spent in the office in front of a computer writing reports and grant proposals. One of the things that I really look forward to is getting out in the field and getting my hands dirty. There is nothing quite like being outside in the fresh air and digging up fossils.

I recently ventured out to Chinchilla, southeast Queensland, in search of Pliocene megafauna. I’ve written previously about Chinchilla’s fossil record; in a nutshell, the fossil faunas date to around 3.5 million years and include all the ancient ancestors of the animals of the Quaternary (the time period that we are currently in). Significant amongst the Chinchilla fossil species is a mega-marsupial, the wombat-like Euryzygoma. Not only was it the biggest marsupial of its time, but it probably ranks as number 2 or 3 of all time! Euryzygoma is a real special guy- not only is it the direct ancestor of the Pleistocene Diprotodon, but it is unique in that it is one of the only mammals known on the entire planet that had a skull that it is wider than it is long! This is made possible by it possessing these incredible cheek flanges that are directed outwardly perpendicular to the rest of the skull.

Students protecting the Euryzygoma fossil with wet newspaper

Students protecting the Euryzygoma fossil with wet newspaper

During our time in Chinchilla, I stumbled across a pretty interesting looking Euryzygoma specimen eroding from an ancient river channel. The fossil, although broken, included the front part of the premaxilla (‘snout’) and contained three incisor teeth. It’s definitely a specimen that will contribute significantly to understanding more about how Euryzygoma operated in life.

We were lucky to have several guests join us during our trip- grade 10 students from the Samford Valley Steiner School. They were worked alongside us, not so much on the palaeontology side of things, but were focussed on surveying the region and drafting topographic maps. The maps will be just so important and will allow us to plot in exactly where the fossils come from.

Students cutting up the hessian in anticipation for plastering the fossil

Students cutting up the hessian in anticipation for plastering the fossil

Even though this is one of my favourite bits of doing fieldwork, I spoke to my other colleagues on the trip and we all agreed that it would be a great chance for the students to get their hands dirty and help excavate the new fossil… and they did a tremendous job! Because it is such a delicate specimen, it was necessary that we just didn’t dig the fossil out and throw it in a bag, but rather, we needed to plaster the fossil in a similar way as if you broke your leg. The first step was to dig around the fossil, making sure that we knew where the extremities of the specimen were (only a little part of it was actually exposed), and to ensure that there was enough area for the plastering work. The students then soaked sheets of newspaper and wrapped them around the fossil. There are a couple of reasons for doing this- firstly it will cushion the specimen once the jacket is finally removed; and secondly, it protects the specimen from the plaster (plaster is notoriously sticky stuff and could actually wreck the specimen if it is applied to it directly).

Steiner School students plastering the Euryzygoma fossil

Steiner School students plastering the Euryzygoma fossil

While some of the students did this part, others busily cut up strips of hessian and mixed the plaster. Then it was time to get messy! The students soaked the hessian strips in the plaster and then wrapped them around the specimen. The idea is that the hessian reinforces the plaster much like steel reinforces concrete. When the plaster eventually dried, we had a super strong cast around the specimen. We left it for a few hours to harden and then we dug under it, rolled it over, and it was ready to go. Because the students undertook the entire task, I didn’t have to get my hands dirty at all! I think that they got a lot out of it- I mean, it’s not every day that one gets to make a plaster jacket for a fossil of an extinct mega-marsupial!

The specimen travelled back with us to The University of Queensland and is now ready for additional preparation work. Although, I was thinking about it the other day- this might be another great opportunity for kids to do the prep job at an upcoming Open Day at UQ. At this rate, I might not have to clean out dirt from under my fingernails ever again!

Fieldwork at Chinchilla

Dr Julien Louys collecting dating samples

An incredible Pliocene vertebrate fossil site occurs at Chinchilla, about four hours drive west of Brisbane, Australia. Fossils have been known from the area since the 1800’s with numerous species identified to date. The fossil fauna includes animals as diverse as diprotodontoids (the same family of mega-marsupials as Diprotodon), short- and long-faced kangaroos, wombats, koalas, and lizards. Despite the richness of the assemblage, plus fact that Chinchilla represents one of few fossil deposits of its age in Australia, relatively little research has been directed towards understanding the significance of the site.

Part of my new work, in collaboration with Dr Julien Louys (also from The University of Queensland) and Joanne Wilkinson (QueenslandMuseum), aims to address this knowledge gap. Julien is presently writing a review on the fauna, but without firm geochronological control on the deposits, we are unsure exactly how old the site actually is. By comparing the types of fossils found at Chinchilla to those from other deposits acrossAustralia, we are confident that the site is Pliocene (between 2.6-5 million years old), but where in the Pliocene is unclear.

Joanne Wilkinson surveying the site

The goal of our recent fieldtrip to the site (late February 2012) was to collect new samples for dating. The samples predominantly included sediment that is associated with the fossils. In late March, the samples will be passed on to our colleague, Dr Andy Herries from the LaTrobe University in Victoria, who is a specialist in palaeomagnetic dating. If the dating is successful, they will be the first analytical dates ever produced for Chinchilla.

Dating is notoriously difficult, time consuming and expensive, but absolutely critical for placing the Chinchilla fossil site into a reliable temporal framework for understanding its significance on a continental scale. Fingers crossed that we can get some new dates very soon!