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Australia's Polar Dinosaurs




Talk by renowned palaeontologists

Dr Thomas Rich, Museum Victoria and Dr Patricia Vickers–Rich, Monash Science Centre

  • 7 January 2012
  • 2.00 - 3.30pm
  • Maxwell Auditorium


100 million years ago, Australia was joined to Antarctica.  The southeastern part of the continent was well within the Antarctic Circle of the day and thus experienced months of continuous darkness.  Quite frigid at times, that dinosaurs lived in this harsh polar environment tells much about them as living animals that otherwise would be unknown.  Their presence in a region of this nature adds evidence that they were warm blooded.  The structure of the brain of one dinosaur suggests it was active during the polar night rather than hibernating or migration to lower latitudes.

By comparison to areas such as eastern Asia and western North America, the quantity of dinosaur specimens from southeastern Australia is quite small.  However, there is now enough to establish that the same major groups of dinosaurs well known in the Northern Hemisphere were represented in Australia.  There are no dinosaurs as unique to that continent as the koalas and kangaroos are today.

Polar southeastern Australia acted as both a evolutionary nursery and old folk’s home in that the earliest and latest known records of some major groups of vertebrates are found there.  For example the youngest specimens of the group of amphibians that gave rise to reptiles, birds and mammals occur there in rocks tens of millions of years younger than any other known fossils of this type.  On the other hand, some carnivorous groups found in southeastern Australia are the oldest known occurrances of them.  These occurrences may be owing to the unique ecology of a polar region.


About Thomas H. Rich

Dr Thomas Rich investigates the polar vertebrates, primarily but not exclusively dinosaurs and mammals, that lived in Victoria during the latter part of the Early Cretaceous between 115 and 106 million years ago.

Dr Rich trained as a vertebrate palaeontologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and Columbia Universtiy, New York.  As a student of Prof Ruben Stirton at the former, he became aware of the potential in Australia to make fundamental discoveries on this continent about mammalian evolution. 

When an opportunity to gain his present position at Museum Victoria arose, he immigrated to this continent to pursue that area of interest.  Twenty-three years after starting a research program witht he goal of acquiring Austrlian Mesozoic mammals, he finally obtained his first specimen.  Subsequently, another 48 have been found.

The National Geographic Society recognized Dr Rich’s professional Dr Rich’s professional contributions along with those of his wife Prof patricia Vickers – Rich, when they were awarded the Committee for Research and Exploration Chairman’;s Award for 2000, which reads in part as follows:

In their investigations of vertebrae palaeontology in Australia, Dr Thomas Rich and Dr Patricia Vickers – Rich have accumulated an extraordinary record of life from the Age of Dinosarus in Australia ranging from dinosaurs to mammals.  This has completely revised our understanding of Mesozoic life at high latitudes. 

In recognition of their tireless and virtually superhuman efforts to gather and interpret fossils of great significance, this award is given.
Tom is currently the Senior Curator (Vertebrate Palaeontology & Palaeobotany) at  Museum Victoria.

About Patricia Vickers-Rich

Sometimes, even globe-trotting palaeontologists become associated with the specific geographical areas in which they made their most famous discoveries. Such is the case with Patricia Vickers-Rich, who along with her husband, fellow paleontologist Tom Rich, has become virtually synonymous with Dinosaur Cove.

In 1980, the couple found the remains of an ancient river channel, studded with bones, on the southern coast of Australia--and soon they began a careful series of excavations, which involved the strategic use of dynamite and sledgehammers.

Over the next 20 years, Vickers-Rich and her husband made a series of important finds, including the small, big-eyed hypsilophodontid Leaellynasaura (which they named after their daughter) and the mysterious ornithomimid Timimus (which they named after their son). 

Timimus may turn out to be a close relative of Tyrannosaurus rex instead of an ornithomimid. When they ran out of children after which to name their fossils, they turned to the corporate sponsors of their work: Qantassaurus was named after Qantas, the Australian national airline and Atlascopcosaurus after Atlas Copco, the Swedish makers of the mining equipment they used to dig tunnels to recover dinosaurs."

What makes these finds especially important is that, during the Mesozoic Era, Australia's climate was much colder than it is today--so Vickers-Rich's dinosaurs are among the few known to have lived close to the South Pole in near-Antarctic conditions.

Patricia also carries out research on the origin of animals and is Director of the Monash Science Centre, in Melbourne.