DR JOHN WATT
Hi, I'm John Watt and welcome to Ever Wondered?, the show that takes you behind the scenes to look at what’s being achieved at the cutting edge of New Zealand scientific research. This week, we dig deep into archaeology and palaeontology to discover how New Zealand evolved and where it might be heading in the future.
DR JAMES CRAMPTON
I’m James Crampton and I’m a palaeontologist at GNS Science. Palaeontology is the study of fossils, anything, any dead animal or plant that was alive millions of years ago. Palaeontology often gets confused with archaeology. Archaeology is concerned with the human remains and palaeontology is anything that’s sort of pre-human, so older than that, a few hundred thousand years or a few million years.
So there’s different types of palaeontologists. There’s macro-palaeontologists, I’m one of those, and we study large fossils. So typically things like fossil shellfish but also if you’re lucky, fossil dinosaurs and plesiosaurs and all those things. Then there’s micro-palaeontologists which they study fossils that are microscopic and in fact for every fossil shell or fossil bone we might find, there’s tens of gazillions of microscopic fossils.
Limestone and chalk are rocks made completely from the skeletons of single cell microscopic fossils. Typically we tend to work with microscopic fossils now simply because you can find millions of them in a small piece of rock.
Micro-fossils are important as certain types can tell us about the history of sea temperature and the change in ocean currents, helping us to design climate models for the future.
New Zealand actually is a great place to do palaeontology for a number of reasons. Firstly, New Zealand sits in this glorious isolation. The shellfish that live around New Zealand, about 90% of them, 90% of the species are only found in New Zealand. So people think the sea’s all connected and these things will just get around but in fact they don’t, so the fossil history can tell us all about how these things have evolved in isolation over millions and millions of years.
Between 20, 23 million years ago, New Zealand was almost entirely submerged. These sort of fossils came right up into the middle of the South Island, right up close to the Southern Alps, and so what it tells us is that at these dates and that time when New Zealand was almost entirely underwater.
All this rich information is stored in a unique database named Fred.
FRED is the Fossil Record Electronic Database. New Zealand’s the only place on the planet that has a database of almost every place where fossils have been found in the country and having this information on a computer allows to answer questions in a way that no other country really can.
Now all these fossils have to come from somewhere. Let’s meet a scientist who’s getting his hands dirty on dry land to discover what was in our ancient oceans.
My name is Ewan Fordyce and I am Associate Professor in the Department of Geology at the University of Otago. I’m a palaeontologist, so I study fossils and for my serious research, it’s mostly fossil vertebrates, backbone animals, particularly whales and dolphins and penguins. And really interested to look at the ancient baleen whales, essentially the ancestors of living whales like minke whales and sperm whales. I’m interested in how big they were, how they lived. Did they feed on small plankton just like the modern species do and so on?
So we know that the world can change in a physical sense and I’m really interested in knowing how the physical changes in the world might have triggered the evolution of whales and dolphins.
Ewan has located a limestone quarry in South Canterbury abundant with marine fossils more than 21 million years old. Hard to believe that all this was once under a 100 metres of seawater.
If we look around here, we might find other vertebrate bones, maybe bits of penguin, sharks teeth, odd whale bones and so on. It’s a last frontier just out there waiting for us to find. So we’ve got a scatter of bones here. We’re not quite sure what’s out on this end, not quite sure at that end, but we can say this is about our layer, so I’m going to get the chainsaw and just cut down to that layer and we’ll lever out the blocks. You’ve got to remember for a PhD in palaeontology, you’ve got to be able to use a pick and a shovel.
This site is still an active limestone quarry, so the race is on to get as many bones out as possible before they are crushed by the machines to sell as fertiliser on farms.
I want to be a palaeontologist. Look at all the cool stuff you get to use.
Ewan uses heavy duty equipment to cut the surface rock down to the fossil layer. Once there, small precision tools are used to prevent damaging the delicate bones. The entire block is then wrapped in a plaster cast in order to transport the treasure safely back to the lab.
Mostly what you’re getting rid of there is tiny tiny fossils. I could see them when I was looking through the scope, little micro-fossils less than a millimetre in diameter.
It is sort of like going to sand.
The ancient whales seem a lot more primitive in terms of their structure but what intrigues me is there was actually a lot more diversity in terms of major lineages than there seems to be today. So modern day whales and dolphins seem to have a lot of species in just a few lineages, whereas if we go back into the geologic past, it seems there were probably more different lineages, perhaps each with its own cluster of little species.
Studying our distant past allows us to better understand the forces still at work on the Earth today and help us to predict the changes that are still to come.
If we want to understand climate change and what it might do to the world, one way is to use these hugely complex computer programmes called Climate Models. The other way you can try and understand that is look back through time to find times in the past that might in one way or another be similar to what we think might happen in the future, and you can see how climate behaved in the past. And so using these two methods together, we can try and understand climate change.
I think working on these fossil vertebrates is all part of human endeavour to understand the past, where the ancestors of the modern animals came from and when they arose and perhaps to give us a better understanding of how they and us fit into global systems.
After the break, we take a look at how science has taken evidence from the distant past to help us solve the ecological problems of today.
Go to Part 2