On an idyllic autumnal day on the playing fields of Flinders, two cricket teams gather under azure skies to compete for a shovel. The Diggers’ Shield, to give the shovel its proper title, is the annual match pitting the Palaeontology Society against the Archaeology Society. What was the outcome of this match, you ask? Did the Palaeos make it five shovels on the trot or did the Archies breakthrough for their first victory?
I caught up with self-professed cricket and palaeontology nerd Sam Arman, to chat about the branch of science that has captivated him for as long as he can remember, and the unique contribution the Flinders University Palaeontology Society (FUPS) makes to Australian palaeontology.
Sam has been involved with FUPS since 2007. As an enthusiastic board member, he is a regular participant in the society’s principle activities, field trips. These trips range from weekenders close to Adelaide to month-long expeditions to Alcoota, Northern Territory, in the mid-semester break. No matter the distance travelled or the length of time, Sam assures me that these trips are all about getting down and dirty – digging and sifting all day in the quest for fossils.
Sam outlines the aims of the society, ‘We try to bridge the gap between amateurs who are interested in palaeontology and researchers and academics. It is a very popular science but there are not many opportunities for amateurs to participate in it. We provide people an opportunity to get stuck into field work. In turn, this enables researchers to get the most out of the society by providing them access to free labour.’ Collaborating with museums and high schools, FUPS reaches beyond the traditional university boundary to involve anyone with a passion for Palaeontology.
And what exactly is Palaeontology? Sam tells us, ‘It’s a blanket term that covers any information about past life – fossils, foot prints, past climate, geology – that provide insight into how life has evolved and changed. It is a world of dinosaurs and giant mammals –including those freaking giant marsupials. Technological advances and climate change combine to constantly reveal new discoveries. Sam illustrates this point, ‘Recently, palaeontologists have been able to analyse skin samples of mummified mammoths, found beneath newly melted permafrost in Siberia, and have determined their haemoglobin was altered to survive their freezing climate.’
In Australia, palaeontologists study the alteration to the environment caused by the arrival of the first people 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, and European arrival 200 years ago, to understand the effects humanity had on the environment and try to feed into today’s animal management. ‘For example, bettongs are now found in fragmented communities but they originally inhabited a vast expanse of the continent,’ Sam explains.
Australia was a comparative latecomer to Palaeontological research. There used to be a cultural-cringe where any fossil discoveries were shipped off to Europe or the USA for examination. However by the 1950s, palaeontologists started coming to Australia to conduct field research. At this point, Australian Palaeontology was kick-started. Sam says ‘this means we have way more fossils in situ and the ability to apply the latest techniques to them when they are unearthed.’
In the highly factionalised Palaeontology world, Sam admits he is a card carrying member of marsupials’ team. The conversation then ranges across unearthing fossils of the long extinct mega fauna – diprotodons (like a truck size wombat) and thylacoleo (marsupial lion) to the more recently departed thylacene (Tassie tiger). As for the media hype about using cloning tech to bring back the thylacene, Sam would prefer us to ‘better look after what we have left before we attempt to bring back more.’ He explains, ‘there’s more to it than cloning. Nature and nurture factors need to be considered and the genetic variability would not be sufficiently diverse to sustain the species. Further, thylacenes were a plains animal, therefore if they were still around, their natural habitat has been destroyed.’
And why should new students join FUPS? Sam grins, ‘It’s an awesome way to get away from the city and dig up an animal that used to exist. If you are interested in Australian history or biology, there is no better way of getting an understanding of the place.’
Sam then steps me through the field trip routine. ‘We car pool up to a town close to the site. We meet at a bakery, convoy out to the site, and set up camp. Next morning we get up, shake off hang-overs, and review the site – checking for erosion and other things that have happened since we were last there. We then uncover the site and excavate all day. We repeat the process every day until we scurry back to town. I have great memories from the field work: my discoveries, what other people find, being out in the field drinking beer as the sun sets.’
Not surprisingly, the name of FUPS’ magazine reflects the members’ shared passions. ‘Beer and Bones is a semi-irregular publication which provides news about what Flinders Palaeo are up to, articles from international researchers and, to satisfy the name requirements, craft beer reviews,’ Sam explains.
Away from the field work and the magazine, the society conducts master classes where visiting researchers demonstrate techniques and, open lab visits. Then there are the social fun times such as the annual FUPcakes fundraising stall and the Diggers’ Shield.
Speaking of which, who did win that cricket match? You’ll need to dig into that story for yourself, dear reader.
Richard Falkner, 52 not out, Bachelor of Creative Arts (Creative Writing)