On the hunt for dinosaurs at The Burke

When Patricia Vickers-Rich decided to hunt for dinosaurs in Australia, she and her husband, fellow paleontologist T. H. Rich, picked one of the most fossil-poor continents for her research.

"You have to look for certain environments that might have served as traps for fossils, such as flood plains. To find the site that we called "Dinosaur Cove," we prospected for six years. We basically walked the entire Victoria coast - and it was not easy. There's cliffs you have to go down on ropes, and things like that," Vickers-Rich said.

The results of more than 20 years of prospecting for dinosaur bones in Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica, Alaska and South America led Vickers-Rich to some startling discoveries, including dinosaurs that lived in regions that experienced freezing temperatures.

Moreover, these dinosaurs adapted to cold, dark winter months by developing exceptional night vision.

These discoveries are part of the traveling exhibition Dinosaurs of Darkness, now on display at The Burke Museum.

The dinosaurs in this exhibition inhabited polar regions and endured much harsher conditions than any other dinosaurs throughout the world.

A series of excavations in Alaska, southeast Australia, Antarctica and other remote locales brought up fossil skulls that show dinosaurs with large optic lobes that probably allowed them to see in very low light, such as arctic winter nights. Examination of the fossils found showed "rings" within the bones, a growth pattern common to animals that hibernate.

"Australia, during this period, was 70 degrees south of its current position. These dinosaurs [in the exhibition] lived in three months of darkness every year," Vickers-Rich said. "It's hard to get a handle on actual temperature ranges in that period, but it certainly went below freezing for periods of time. We know that the world was warmer at that time - it didn't have ice caps at the poles - but it certainly could and did get very cold in the winter."

Vickers-Rich and her husband discovered the dinosaurs Leaellyna-saura (1989) and Timimus (1994) (both named for their children), Atla-scopcosaurus (1989), Qantassaurus (1999), the early Australian mammal Ausktribosphenos and others.

Because Australia and New Zealand are not good fossil grounds, Vickers-Rich and her colleagues filled out the exhibition with fossils from other regions of the world.

"In Australia, we have about 10 full skeletons for the whole continent," Vickers-Rich said. "In a place like Alaska, you find lots and lots of bones. In places like Antarctica, Australia and New Zealand, you find fragments of things. You don't find full skeletons.

"So we brought along things like full skeletons from Mongolia so people can see where the bits fit," she continued. "It's pretty hard for a 5-year-old or even the 5-year-old's mother to imagine what the dinosaur looks like if you don't have a full skeleton."

For their first discoveries in Australia, Vickers-Rich said they had to learn mining techniques, such as drilling and blasting, to reach the fossils hidden deep underground. They usually worked in extreme desert conditions. "We did that for 10 years, while I was raising our two children, cooking for 50 people on site and so forth," she recalled.

Despite being raised on fossil sites, neither of her children is interested in paleontology at the moment, Vickers-Rich said. "My son is going into the Australian Army this year; my daughter is a lawyer. My daughter loved going into the field, but my son hated it after awhile. He even had a T-shirt made up saying "I Hate Deserts," and I said he didn't have to come with us any more," she said. "My daughter was a good, amateur geologist, but she looked at her parents and decided to go into a profession where she could make some money."

Despite her own children's rebellion against fossil hunting, Vickers-Rich wants to get more children involved in science. When she's not in the field or writing books about dinosaurs, Vickers-Rich teaches at the Monash University in Australia. Through the Monash Science Centre, which she founded, Vickers-Rich is sponsoring programs around the world to interest young children in science.

Dinosaurs of Darkness and the Monash Science Centre's other traveling exhibitions were developed to help fund the center's core task of promoting science education.

"We develop a lot of curriculum. We work in everything from schools around Australia to refugee camps in Afghanistan. The idea is to get solid curriculum into the schools, teach the teachers how to teach science and so on," Vickers-Rich said. "We do everything from physics to astronomy to whatever. Paleontology is only a small part of it."

The Dinosaurs of Darkness exhibition also carries with it a whole range of educational material to help increase the exhibition's usefulness in teaching science to children.

"Some people are going to come in and just look at the dinosaurs. But we've written the panels at various levels. You can go through here and enjoy it as big dinosaurs and small dinosaurs, if you just read the top line. Or you can read the second series of words on those panels, and they summarize something about the lifestyle or climate. And if you get down and read the fine print, you can learn even more," Vickers-Rich said.

Dinosaurs of Darkness will be on display at The Burke Museum through Oct. 10.[[In-content Ad]]