Fossicking Fossils

Kath Heiman — 20 May 2021
Kath gives us an insight into the discussions from her backseat driver regarding life, the universe and everything while touring regional Australia.

Sometimes it’s pretty difficult to grasp just how amazing it is to be living here on planet Earth. When we’re stuck in our day-to-day routine, most of us probably take our existence for granted. 

But spend any time in the great outdoors looking at the night sky, and we come face to face with our insignificance in the scheme of things. It’s mind-boggling to consider how we came to be here, sitting on our camp chairs, on the tiny speck that is this amazing blue planet in a solar system located over 26,000 light-years from the centre of our galaxy. Gaze up into the night sky and we see fuzzy clusters of stars stretching out beyond our wildest imaginations, marking the path of the Milky Way. Shooting stars bear witness to collisions between asteroids and space junk hurtling through space, splintering and hurling debris throughout our atmosphere. 

Yet here we are. 

Over 4.5 billion years, Earth has supported life forms that — as far as we know — exist nowhere else in the galaxy. And we humans are just one species in a long list of bacteria, microbes, protozoa, insect, reptiles, birds, mammals, and other life forms that have come and gone over the millennia. 

Thinking about it is enough to make an adult’s head spin, so how’s a kid supposed to get a grip on it all? How do you explain the sheer enormity of all this time and space to a child whose universe probably revolves around the borders of the school yard? 

I reckon frolicking among fossils has got to be one of the best ways for adults to help raise their kids’ horizons to a new plane.

Fossils are the visible traces of ancient life on earth. They help us to actually see the evolution and relationships of life on earth, and the impact of our galaxy on our planet. While it’s one thing to tell a kid that life existed on Earth millions (indeed billions) of years before they were born, it’s quite another to stand face to face with fossil remains old enough that they’ve turned into beautiful translucent opal. And while a child might be told that dinosaurs lived on Earth and became extinct, nothing beats seeing a full-scale replica of T-Rex or the actual fossilised skull of Australia’s massive marsupial wombat, Diprotodon, to bring the point home. 

From Naracoorte to Lightning Ridge, Winton to Bathurst, urban warriors, and outback adventurers alike can get up close and personal with our fossil record. 

Best of all, kids love this stuff. There’s something magical about life forms that lived millions of years before the first vestiges of human life crawled out of the primordial soup of earth’s ancient pools. 

"Where did they come from?’" "Where did they go?" "Can they come back?" "Are there any more anywhere?" "Can I touch one?" "Can I have one?" Put a kid in front of a fossil and their inquisitive minds light up. 

When we’re on the road with kids, it’s sometimes difficult to work out whether all these things we show them, and facts we tell them, are sinking in. But now and again, our efforts are rewarded. Take a recent drive from Canowindra’s Age of Fishes Museum through to Canberra, past the replica dinosaurs in the courtyard outside the National Dinosaur Museum on the road into town. All had been quiet in the back seat when our 10-year-old suddenly yelped “Hey, I just saw that dinosaur at that other place we were at! He’s heaps younger than those fossil fish!” 

Bingo! Living proof of learning. 


Column regulars She'll Be Right Fossils Learning through history Palaeontology