Voice of Real Australia: Listen to Episode 11 of the Voice of Real Australia Podcast: New hope for forgotten fish fossils

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Bruce Loomes was foreman of the 1993 fossil dig in Canowindra. PHOTO: Laura Corrigan

Bruce Loomes was foreman of the 1993 fossil dig in Canowindra. PHOTO: Laura Corrigan

It's a scorching 34 degree day in Canowindra, Central West NSW. The hot and dusty wind provides no relief. Cicadas are screaming.

Local, Bruce Loomes, points out a pile of rocks on the side of the road. He's brought me to where Canowindra's major fish fossil find took place nearly 30 years ago.

Today it looks like a mound of dirt overgrown with tall grasses. If there wasn't a sign to mark the spot you'd drive straight past it.

He shows me pictures of the 1993 dig. I look between then and now. They'd dug about 3.5 metres down with an excavator. I ask if there's any fossil among the sandstone chunks lying haphazardly on the road side.

He points one out and then another. But tells me they'd be considered insignificant, incomplete, by Dr Alex Ritchie, the palaeontologist who made the dig happen all those years ago.

Not far below where I'm standing, Bruce tells me, is a slab of well preserved fish fossils. It was covered with a sheet of black plastic, then reburied when Dr Ritchie ran out of time.

And beneath that slab? Who knows.

Dr Ritchie and Bruce, his foreman, had only 10 days for the exploratory dig. They barely scratched the surface and in that time they found 4000 fish across 80 tonnes of rock slabs.

The find helped fill gaps in our knowledge about the evolution of life. Just imagine if they'd had more time, more resources, dug a little deeper, a little wider.

Bruce Loomes in 1993 at the original dig site. PHOTO: Supplied.

Bruce Loomes in 1993 at the original dig site. PHOTO: Supplied.

The dig site is basically the nature strip between a sheep farm's boundary fence and the public road (now called Fish Fossil Drive).

Fish fossils were first discovered here by chance in the 1950s by a roadworker. Then it wasn't until the 1990s that Canowindra piqued the curiosity of the scientific community once more. Dr Ritchie worked at the Australian Museum at the time and had an interest in the Devonian period, the age of the fishes.

The Canowindra community got behind the dig chipping in where they could. The excavator worked for free, and high school students cleaned and prepared the slabs.

Now there's a museum in town to tell the story. It's one of only two Devonian museums in the world.

David Attenborough visited Canowindra in 2013 and called the fossils "world class" because they were so well preserved.

Dr Ritchie believes if the dig site reopened we'd find the first tetrapod (walking fish) fossil in the Southern Hemisphere. That's Dr Ritchie's dream, for the site to reopen and become a tourist attraction and open air research facility/museum.

But 30 years have gone by and the site stays buried. The adjacent land was recently sold and who it was sold to could mean the difference between realising Dr Ritchie's dream, or those fossils being forgotten forever. In this week's episode of the Voice of Real Australia podcast I track down the new buyer.

Bruce and I look out across the rocky outcrop that stretches beyond the boundary fence, grazing land. I wonder what's buried beneath waiting to be uncovered.

Listen to the full story on our podcast. Search Voice of Real Australia in Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen.

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