If you went out today and asked a Melbournian where you could see a prehistoric creature, they would likely point you in the direction of the Melbourne Museum. Most people don’t realise that you can find all kinds of prehistoric animals and plants in the wilds of Victoria!
Miocene Rainforest (20 MYO)
In the past, Australia was not the dry, sunburnt landscape that we know today. Instead, during the early Miocene (20 MYA) the continent was blanketed in lush rainforests. The continent was inhabited by all manner of strange animals including the huge emu-like Genyornis, many species of rainforest koala and even flamingos where the inland deserts now lie. While most of these forests have now given way to arid landscapes, small pockets of primeval woods still remain and are even inhabited by some animals not unlike those which dwelled there 20 million years ago. The Toolangi State Forest is one of the few remaining places where you can step back in time and wander through a Miocene rainforest. The valleys are dominated by living fossil trees called southern beech (Nothofagus cunninghamii), one of the trees which dominated those ancient forest millions of years ago. If you have a careful eye, you may even spot a living fossil in the crystal clear streams that run through the forest – it’s a great place to spot platypuses, crayfish or worms in the shallow waters. The platypus is a relic from times long gone. Having shared Australia with the dinosaurs and remained relatively unchanged, they belong to one of the most ancient groups of mammals on earth: the Monotremes. So if you fancy searching for living fossils in a forest almost unchanged for 20 million years, Toolangi State Forest is a good start. Being only an hour’s drive from the CBD, it’s right on Melbourne’s doorstep!
Cretaceous Sea (80 MYO)
But maybe you want something much older? Perhaps you fancy the idea of swimming in a cretaceous sea with animals that shared those waters with huge marine reptiles like the Plesiosaurs or Ichthyosaurs. On a warm, still March evening, you can swim with a living fossil not unlike the extinct ammonites of old. The paper nautilus (Argonauta nodosa) is a relic from an ancient group. They are actually a type of mollusc with a pale, pearl-coloured shell, spending most of their lives drifting through the open ocean catching small animals to eat. While often shy, paper nautiluses will come close to shore on evenings during the late summer and early autumn months from January to March. This is the perfect time to come face to face with them in the shallow waters around Brighton Beach or along the Mornington Peninsula.
Carboniferous Wetland (300 MYO)
Perhaps the Mesozoic isn’t far enough back for you; maybe you’d prefer a visit to the Carboniferous era (300 MYA) when the Earth was dominated by giant arthropods. Fear not, because there is another place near Melbourne for you. It’s a place where you can see some of the earliest animals to take wing and some of the first freshwater ‘bugs’ to swim up the fresh waterways of the world. Some of these early arthropods to take to freshwater are the tadpole shrimp, which today can be found in ephemeral wetlands throughout Victoria. When the wetlands flood, the waters teem with these amazing creatures as they frantically search for a mate before the waters subside and the wetland dries out. When the water disappears, the adults die; however, buried in the dry earth are drought-resistant eggs which can last for years before the wetland fills once more and the cycle starts again. A great place to catch a glimpse of these living fossils is the Yea Wetlands north-east of Melbourne and the best time to search for them is during spring and autumn. With the help of a bucket and net, one can catch these crustaceans that can reach up to to 4 centimetres in length.
Most entomologists, myself included, consider the dragonflies and damselflies (Odonata) to be some of the most extraordinary living fossils alive today. Not only are they basically unchanged since they first appeared during the Carboniferous era, but they are so ubiquitous that one can find them almost anywhere, from the middle of the CBD to the most remote forests. The Yea Wetlands are a great place to see many different species and it is also believed to be the home of one of the rarest types in Australia: the endangered ancient greenling damselfly (Hemiphlebia mirabilis). The ancient greenling is the sole survivor of its family Hemiphlebiidae, an ancient group of primitive damselflies. Its tantalising metallic green body and agile aerial stunts make it an incredible living fossil to search for and observe in the wild! However, it has not been seen in Yea for 15 years and may be extinct there. So why not search it out and possibly rediscover a population of living fossils!
Dinosaur Floodplain (106 MYO)
You will indeed have a hard time finding a living dinosaur today! However, it is possible to find dinosaur bones. Close to Melbourne is one of the best dinosaur fossil beds in the country at Dinosaur Cove, west of Cape Otway. On the weathered cliffs overhanging the Great Southern Ocean, dinosaur bones from a number of species have been found, ranging from small herbivorous Leaellynasaura to the huge carnivorous relatives of the Australian Allosaurus. Fossils of ancient types of platypus have also been unearthed. During the time the fossils were laid down, the area was a great flood plain surrounded by polar forests filled with tree ferns. While dinosaur fossils are more rare, anyone can find the abundant shell fossils that are common along the beaches at Dinosaur Cove.
Serravallian Sea Shore (13 MYO)
While searching the rocky shoreline of Dinosaur Cove is one way to find fossils, a far cooler way is with a snorkel and flippers down at Fossil Beach on the Mornington Peninsula. Fossil Beach was originally a marshy estuary where the sea met the shore, and silt and nutrients washed down the rivers and streams to be deposited in the warm, shallow ocean that fringed Victoria. In this fertile habitat, all sorts of marine life were fossilised but most notably a great diversity of shells. Today, these shells are embedded in a mud matrix and can be seen exposed on the cliffs and hills which meet the ocean, as well as on the shallow seafloor around the shoreline. The best time to access this area is during low tide when the water is very clear and the seafloor is easy to reach. The mud matrix in which they are embedded is soft, making beautifully preserved fossils easy to pick up. While this is an ancient seafloor covered in long-extinct animals, you may even find some living fossils there too, as chitons (an ancient group of molluscs) are common on the rocks around fossil beach.
So next time you feel inspired to find some ancient creatures, don’t forget the fantastic forests, beaches and wetlands around Melbourne that harbour some amazing living fossils!
Please note: Collecting fossils on public land in Victoria is permitted, provided it is for non-commercial purposes. Please take care to minimise any possible damage to the surrounding environment when fossicking and refer to the Museum Victoria website for more information on safe fossicking around Melbourne and Victoria.
Banner image of a chiton, an example of an ancient group of molluscs and is courtesy of Taollan82 [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons.