New Zealand should celebrate its prehistoric past with fossil emblems

By Nic Rawlence of

The Conversation

It’s not often New Zealanders admit Australia is onto a good thing. Our long-running trans-Tasman rivalry usually revolves around accusing Australians of stealing national cultural icons like Phar Lap, Pavlova or Crowded House.

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Dr Nic Rawlence with a giant moa tibia and gizzard stones.
Photo: guy fredrik

But I have to admit that when it comes to championing palaeontology (the study of fossils and what they can teach us about our biological heritage), the Australians have a good thing going.

Taking an idea that originated in the United States, many Australian states in recent decades have started adopting fossil emblems (alongside animal, floral, marine and mineral ones) that epitomize the natural history of each region.

In turn, these emblems can help promote fossil tourism, educational outreach and awareness of the need for fossil protection strategies.

Western Australia chose the 380 million-year-old Devonian fish Mcnamaraspis kaprios, while New South Wales picked a similarly aged fish, Mandageria fairfaxi. South Australia adopted the 550 million-year-old Spriggina floundersi from the dawn of complex life – the first animal in the fossil record whose left and right sides mirrored each other, like ours do today.

The Australian Capital Territory picked the 545 million-year-old brachiopod Atrypa duntroonensis, while a public vote in Victoria chose the 125 million-year-old giant amphibian Koolasuchus cleelandi. Queensland is holding a public vote to pick an emblem from 12 candidates that include dinosaurs, giant marine reptiles, an amphibian, a crocodile, a monotreme, a plant and a sea lily.

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The skull of the elasmosaur Tuarangisaurus keyesi, a long-necked marine reptile that lived about 80 million years ago, at the same time as the dinosaurs.
Photo: Specimen from the National Paleontological Collections, GNS Science. Photographer Marianna Terezow

Aotearoa’s rich fossil record

Aotearoa New Zealand also has a rich fossil record that palaeontologists have used to unlock the evolution of our taonga (treasured) species and their unique whakapapa (lineage), in some cases stretching back tens to hundreds of millions of years.

In spite of this, there’s a distinct shortfall in palaeontological expertise and funding, which is affecting our ability to study and protect the local fossil record.

Nevertheless, New Zealand’s fossils have captured the public imagination, such as the recently discovered 16-19 million-year-old giant Catriona’s shelduck (Miotadorna catrionae) from St Bathans. Fossils can also inspire future generations through interactive museum displays, outreach and volunteering on fossil digs.

An artist's impression of Catriona's shelduck, a new species of large duck (Aves: Anatidae) from the Miocene of New Zealand

An artist’s rendition of Catriona’s shelduck.
Photo: Simone Giovanardi

Educational resources can be developed around our unique fossils to teach young New Zealanders how plants and animals evolved in response to the country’s dynamic geological and climatic history.

Fossil tourism

Emblems can also help teach us about the plight and importance of fossils. Newly exposed sites are not being excavated by experts, while other sites are eroding before our eyes. The potential information those sites hold is lost.

While fossil collection by amateurs provides some information, data retention is often substandard, and amateur collection can destroy small sensitive sites. Numerous moa bones, often illegally collected, still come up for sale despite the best efforts to stop this practice.

Moa bones at Te Pap

Moa bones at Te Papa in Wellington.
Photo: RNZ/Jonathan Mitchell

In a post-pandemic world, promoting sustainable tourism is more important than ever. Many regions are uniquely suited to fossil tourism, such as Waitomo and the West Coast. North Otago is already home to the Waitaki Whitestone Geopark, which promotes the geological and fossil history of the region.

Fossil tourism could also be developed at Foulden Maar, a 23 million-year-old lake deposit near Middlemarch in Central Otago, which the public fought to project from mining. It could house a museum and research facilities, and offer opportunities for people to collect fossils for themselves (as happens at Kronosaurus Korner in Queensland) or volunteer on digs (as they can at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs).

St Bathans dig: Researchers from the University of Otago, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and Massey University work on the site in St Bathans, Central Otago.

Researchers digging at a site in St Bathans in Central Otago. Maybe visitors could get the chance to volunteer on a dig, Nic Rawlence suggests.
Photo: NIC RAWLENCE

Time to choose

So, what should New Zealanders choose for their fossil emblem? Should we pick something flashy like the pouakai/Haast’s eagle (Aquila moorei) whose ancestor, the smallest eagle in the world, arrived in Aotearoa only about 2.5 million years ago and rapidly evolved into the world’s largest?

What about the 75 million-year-old plesiosaur Kaiwhekea katiki or the shark-toothed dolphin that captures my children’s attention?

We could agree that size does matter and choose the 55-60 million-year-old giant Bice penguin (Kumimanu biceae) or moa nunui/South Island giant moa (Dinornis robustus). At the other end of the scale, how about the smallest fossils like 505 million-year-old trilobites, some of our oldest fossils?

Should we consider historical value, like the first theropod dinosaur or one of the mosasaurs (such as Prognathodon overtoni) that pioneering fossil hunter Joan Wiffen discovered? Or should scientific value prevail, like the living pūpū whakarongotaua/flax snail (Placostylus ambagiosus), whose abundant fossil shells are teaching us a lot about the impacts of climate change and human settlement?

I’m forming a committee of palaeontologists from across New Zealand to decide on a shortlist to put to a public vote. We would welcome input about what fossils to consider, whether we should have a single emblem representing New Zealand, or regional emblems, and even a yearly competition like the sometimes controversial Bird of the Year.

So get your iwi, whānau, school and local museum involved, lobby your local politicians and let us know what you think at [email protected]

Read more RNZ stories on fossil discoveries

Dinosaurs and ancient mammals in Te Awamutu

Fossil scan reveals secrets of New Zealand’s extinct marine reptiles

New giant duck discovered in St Bathans in Otago

New species related to extinct dodo found in Otago

Nic Rawlence is a senior lecturer in ancient DNA at the University of Otago

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