Thursday, 29 January 2015

Unprofessional endeavours: amateur paleontology in New Zealand

There is currently an exhibition touring around New Zealand called Dinosaur Footprints: A Story of Discovery, which as its name suggests concerns traces of our much-beloved prehistoric beasts. Besides being the nation's first dinosaur footprints (known to science, that is) the story of their discovery is all the more interesting for their having been found by accident. In this particular case the discoverer was a professional geologist but in many cases New Zealand's great fossil discoveries have been equally serendipitous findings by amateurs.

Whilst New Zealand science is comparatively young, amateurs have always played a pivotal role in both the discovery and analysis of native fossils. Although the beginnings of Kiwi paleontology appear rather haphazard (see for example Quinn Berentson's superb Moa: The life and death of New Zealand's legendary bird for details on Walter Mantell, Julius von Haast and co.) the involvement of amateurs has far from diminished even today.

Although I've previously discussed non-professional fossicking before and even written a more New Zealand-focused April Fool's post, the more I've learnt about the Kiwi give-it-a-go approach the more I've wanted to write about the discipline from a local perspective.  Having undertaken three fossil hunts over the past year in the North Island (two successful, one a complete failure) I also now have some practical experience to aid me.

New Zealand fossil finds from 2014

There are several amateur New Zealand palaeontologists who have made key discoveries, perhaps the best known being Dave Allen and the late Joan Wiffen. The latter found the first dinosaur material in the country, as well as some Mesozoic marine reptile remains. And this was after many professionals claimed there was unlikely to be any such material in New Zealand! Dave Allen has also made some key finds and is occasionally even asked by the likes of Te Papa for advice.  Clearly, in a nation served by less than thirty full-time professionals, such people are able to make a big difference. To show it isn't just the province of adults, in 2006 children from the Hamilton Junior Naturalists Club found bones from a 35 million year old giant penguin, which just shows what a mind even semi-prepared for such material can discover.

One of the common misapprehensions about fossil hunting is that it involves excavation in the same way as is often required in archaeology. In fact, many fossils can be found eroding out of cliffs or roadside cuttings, or even found in loose material on beaches. Therefore there is a finite period between fossils being easy to spot and becoming worn down into useless fragments just by natural erosion, never mind man-made development. One report for example, suggests that weather will severely erode over fifty known fossil locations in the next half century. As such, it seems to make common sense that the more people trained to spot fossil material and be able to carefully extract it, the better. The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, an expert on snails, once lamented that whilst in the Great Rift Valley he was unable to spot any of the hominin remains but instead homed in on the copious fossil snails that everyone else had missed!

This isn't to say that amateurs should have carte blanche. About one third of New Zealand's fossiliferous locations are protected from extraction due to the importance of the material. However, that still leaves at least thirty to forty sites that are easy for non-professionals to access whilst also allowing the removal of fossils. Amateurs are well served by both books and websites that supply details of locales and common fossil species. James Crampton and Marianna Terezow's family-friendly The Kiwi Fossil Hunter's Handbook is particularly good for the former whilst the same authors along with three others have written A Photographic Guide to Fossils of New Zealand, an invaluable resource. For the more serious amateurs, finds details can be found at resources such as the Fossil Record Electronic Database (FRED), which has over 86,000 locations. So all in all, there's plenty of help for the casual fossicker.

In addition to the argument that the greater the number of fossil hunters, the greater the opportunity to discover material before it is eroded, there is also the problem that the lack of professionals is apparently causing the loss of knowledge in basic areas such as taxonomy. According to James Crampton and Roger Cooper's 2010 report The State of Paleontology in New Zealand, around 40% of Cenezoic mollusc species have yet to be fully described. They state that there are still large areas of the country that have not been fully explored by palaeontologists so who knows what other surprises may lurking in the deep bush or hidden river valley?

There's even the slim chance that the involvement of amateurs may stimulate public interest and activity in important associated fields, such as the protection of endangered species, environmental pollution, sustainability and the promotion of science in general over woolly thinking. After all, it appears most politicians would rather side with big business than the greens, so only continuous and concerted efforts from a fair-sized element of the general public will likely aid the future state of the nation's environment. And that's not something any of us can afford to ignore, regardless of whether you are interested in the remains of organisms that have long since turned to stone.