Back to the future with a fossil-led recovery …

Okay, so what came first, the chicken or the egg?

How about the dinosaur?

Well, so science seems to suggest, and largely the fault of a cute little critter jackhammered out of cliffs near Apollo Bay 30 years back.

This came to mind when I learned an ancient Jan Juc whale is in the running for the Fossil Emblem of Victoria title. The dolphin-sized Janjucetus hunderi lived 25 million years ago and was discovered in bits at Bird Rock and Bells Beach over the last couple of decades. It’s somewhere between a spear-tooth dorudon, whatever that is, and a blue whale.

Eight candidates are vying for the fossil gong, including the dinosaur Leaellynasaura found at Apollo Bay’s Dinosaur Cove and whose big eyes helped rewrite palaeontological thinking. Around 105 million years old, Leaellynasaura amicagraphica was only 30 cm high. Looked a bit like a potoroo, according to Tom Rich, who found and named it after his daughter Leaellyn .

Leaellynasaura’s penetrating orbs enabled her to function in the winter darkness of the Cretaceous southern polar region where Apollo Bay once was. Rich contended if she was active in the dark and the cold, she was warm-blooded – not a cold-blooded reptilian dinosaur. The idea led to talk of dinosaurs being related to birds.

Curious stuff, especially with scientists like Abzhanov and Gorman claiming they’ll build you a dinosaur if you give them enough cash and chickens. I can see a KFC bronto-burger on the horizon already

Dinosaur Cove was an antediluvian menagerie full of velociraptors, pterosaurs, plesiosaurs, oviraptors, ancient crocodiles, turtles and upright relatives of echidnas and platypuses, platypi or whatever the plural is of Ornithorhynchus paradoxus. A veritable Flintstones zoo.

While Leaellyn’s little dinosaur rewrote history, even won celebrity status on the BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs, the jury has since gone out on her. Thinking is now that her large eyes weren’t so much about adapting to low light as simply the over-sized peepers of a juvenile; nature’s cute factor, designed to stop parents throttling their offspring.

But worse. Now, her history’s being re-written again. This competition for the official fossil emblem of Victoria title is usurping an unofficial crown Leaellynasaura already held.

In 2005, Victorian schoolkids voted for their favourite fossil, from a list nominated by Museum Victoria’s head of sciences, palaeontologist John Long. Her bug-eyes snaffled her 978 votes ahead of nearest rival, a sea urchin Lovenia woodsi, on 590.

No surprises there, maybe, but her halo has mysteriously slipped since. Museum Vic simply says there’s no fossil emblem. We’ll find out who’s who again soon enough, I suppose.

Interesting prospect about all this, to me anyway, is the fact the Surf Coast and Otways host an extraordinary palaeontology footprint that also includes dinosaur burrows at Knowledge Creek, a spine lizard dinosaur and chicken-like therapod also near Cape Otway, dozens of dinosaur footprint fossils – bung them in with the other weird and wonderful drawcards of the southwest and you’d reckon they’d make a fair complement to the region’s Covid-ravaged tourism.

Think the Great Ocean Road, the Surf Coast, Shipwreck Coast, Dinosaur Coast, Whale Nursery Highway, floating islands, Stony Rises, crater lakes, giant ferns, spotted tiger quolls, exquisite waterfalls, subterranean caverns, bunyip bones, tales of sealers and Aborigines, attacks on Aborigines, secret wartime airbases, early discoveries by China and Portugal, UFOs, mysterious disappearances, WW2 German submarines ….

No need to thank me but if that’s not enough to set off a new South by Southwest Tourist Trail I’m not sure what is.

Meanwhile, though, I’m keeping an eye on a bioscience mob called Colossal that’s keen to insert ancient woolly mammoth DNA into elephants and build a hybrid elephant-mammoth. Very Jurassic Park. What could possibly go wrong?

Coco-lossal’s probably more fitting. Who knows what can slip out of a laboratory these days?