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Beaumaris Fossils
By Erich Fitzgerald, 22 February 2015
Imagine a world before Facebook, or the printed word, or words at all, for
that matter. A world without rush hour, a world without cars, a time without
wheels. A world where the only mouse is a small rodent. Before even the Ice
Age: when rainforests sprouted across Victoria, and terrifyingly huge sharks
that ate whales swam our seas. A world without us.
That world is real.
Though separated from us by 5 million years, we can visit that world.
Today. Right now. Right here in Beaumaris. Let me show you.
Like today’s weather, it’s warm. Even warmer. You see, 5 million years ago,
the global climate is at least 3 degrees warmer than at present.
We’re in a boat being bumped about on the surface of the prototype of Port
Phillip Bay. But the shores of the Bay are some 5 km to the east of us.
Some dolphins leap from the water not far from our boat, but they have a
much longer beak than any dolphin here today. We soon see why they’re
leaping for their lives: a killer sperm whale is lunging after them with its teeth
the size of bananas.
Blasts of air and seawater announce the presence of a group of right whales.
We don our masks and snorkels and dive in, only to be greeted
by…SHARKS!
Makos. Whalers. Tigers. White Pointers, and more…
Almost as soon as we’ve seen them, these sprats scatter as a shark larger
than the whales cruises up from the depths. It is the Megalodon, the largest
shark that has ever lived.
We quickly get back in the boat and head for land. Close to shore, we spot a
dugong punting along the seafloor, grazing on some seagrass. As we haul up
the beach, strange seals lazing on the sand, and penguins the size of today’s
Emperors, greet us.
A shadow momentarily passes over us. Looking up, we see a huge bird with a
long serrated beak and a wingspan greater than any Present day bird.
Sitting down at the top of a sand dune to catch our breath, we hear a snort
and the sound of chewing. Behind us, a shaggy marsupial the size of a
rhinoceros munches on plants.

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This extraordinary vision of a world long ago, is what the Beaumaris fossil
site has given us.
It is a world that we just missed by a blink of the eye in geological time. I think
that is a stirringly profound reality.
And there is nowhere else like it on Earth. This is the jewel in the crown of
Bayside, and, I would argue, Melbourne. To those of you from the Bayside
area, you should have soaring pride in this unique heritage.
A heritage that in fact belongs to the entire world. It is a heritage that we are
only now beginning to uncover through pioneering scientific discovery in
partnership with people from all walks of life, experience, and knowledge. This
is the people’s fossil site.
For over 100 years, keen citizens, most with no scientific training, have been
finding and collecting fossils at Beaumaris. Thousands upon thousands of
these fossils have made their way into the 160-year-old collection of Museum
Victoria, where they are securely housed and cared for so that they may be
available for research and education for generations to come.
It is the marine megafauna, the marine mammals, seabirds, and sharks that
are the most charismatic fossils found at Beaumaris. They are also the fossils
that we know least about. No Australian palaeontologist has ever dedicated
themselves to the exploration and study of these types of fossils from
Beaumaris, or anywhere else in Australia.
In 2009 I set out on a quest of discovery to change this, starting with
Beaumaris. So what do we now know about the Beaumaris fossil megafauna?
It’s mind-boggling in its productivity:
More, perhaps much more, than 3,000 fossils of vertebrates from Beaumaris
are housed in Museum Victoria’s Palaeontology Collection.
It’s staggeringly rich in diversity:
31 families of fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals. And counting. That level of
biodiversity is unmatched by any other Australian marine fossil site.
At least 7 of those families, including modern sea turtles, giant bony-toothed
birds, albatrosses, and pygmy right whales, have their ONLY fossil record in
Australia at Beaumaris. Without Beaumaris, we would know NOTHING about
the evolutionary history of these animals in Australia.
And we’re not slowing down. In the last 6 years we’ve made more new fossil
discoveries at Beaumaris than in the previous 100 years. These and some
amazing fossil discoveries we have in the pipeline, dramatically increase the
scientific significance of Beaumaris. The fame and impact of Beaumaris is set
to grow by leaps and bounds.

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The evidence to hand boils down to this: Beaumaris is the single most
scientifically significant source of marine fossils in Australia dating from the
time after the extinction of the dinosaurs. That is, from the last 66 million years
of Earth’s history.
The 1.6 km between Table Rock and Mentone Beach is the only stretch of
Australia’s 34,000 km coastline that yields a fossil site of this type and quality.
Beaumaris is also arguably the only world-class fossil site within an Australian
city.
Without Beaumaris, our understanding of the history and biology of our
marine life would be severely diminished. But why care about our past? Why
care about Beaumaris?
When I was 5 years old I decided to one day become a palaeontologist.
Fortunately, my family, here in the audience today, fostered this ambition.
When I was a little older, and learned more about how much of the deep past
we’d uncovered, I grew sad. What was left to discover? Is there any mystery
left in the world? In our on-demand connected world, it can seem like there is
no part of the map that needs exploring.
I’m here to tell you: The great days of discovery are not yet done.
The map of Deep Time has not yet been drawn.
The final frontier of Australian palaeontology lies before us: the exploration of
our fossil whales and other marine megafauna.
Beaumaris is the gateway to this new era of fossil discovery in Australia. It is
here that we can roll back the frontier of the ancient unknown.
The Beaumaris fossil site shows us a world at once familiar and so unlike our
Present. Its lessons to us are brought by its fossils––the messengers from
Deep Time. Beaumaris represents a past that parallels some estimates of our
climate future. What might the fate of the animals preserved as fossils at
Beaumaris tell us about how the ocean environment responds to the
magnitude of global change we may yet face?
It can take just one spectacular fossil discovery to change the world. How
might a major scientific advance made right here in a city of 5 million people
engage the imagination of society to look a bit differently at their world? Or
inspire children’s curiosity to become future leaders and problem solvers in
science, medicine, engineering or technology? Beaumaris can have that
legacy…..

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More than a century after the first fossils were found at Beaumaris, its
time has finally come. We can’t begin our adventure into the past soon
enough.
And we need your help to explore it.
The greatest discoveries with the most lasting impact are locked up in
rock, waiting for their story to be told.
Let’s unleash them and cement Beaumaris as a wonder of the world.
Together, we can do this, for the benefit of all.
I hope you’ll join me on this quest of a lifetime.

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