Fossil Donation to Museum Helps to Identify Australia’s First Seal

Many museums receive donations from fossil collectors and geologists.  These collections can prove to be invaluable and provide scientists with new material to study as well as providing a safe and secure home for much loved collections that can represent many years of fossil hunting.  One such collection donated to the Museum Victoria (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia), by a keen fossil and mineral collector has helped palaeontologists to identify the first fossil evidence of a seal (Pinniped) on the continent.

Ross Wilkie of Tooradin, a small town to the south-east of Melbourne, donated the mineral and fossil collection, the majority of which were found in Victoria in the Beaumaris cliffs, an area of Pliocene aged strata located approximately twenty miles from Melbourne.  The seal bone, part of an upper arm (humerus) has been dated to around five million years ago (Pliocene Epoch) and it is very similar in appearance to the equivalent bone in an extant Mediterranean Monk Seal (Monachus monachus).  The Mediterranean Monks Seal is one of the rarest large mammals in the world.  It has been estimated that there are only about five hundred individuals left in the eastern Mediterranean, however, it is remarkable to think that Australia’s first seal fossil should resemble a genus found on the other side of the world and not one from the southern hemisphere.

Beaumaris Bay – A Good Place to Find Fossils

Fossil site gets "seal" of approval.

Fossil site gets "seal" of approval.

Picture Credit: David Hastie/Museum Victoria

Dr. Erich Fitzgerald, the Senior Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the Melbourne based museum commented that fur seals and seal lions of the Otariidae family live in the waters around southern Australia.  Back in the Pliocene the situation was different, the area was inhabited by a completely different clade of seals, these now are found in the Old World.

Dr. Fitzgerald went on to explain that the humerus specimen was very important as it provided evidence of unexpected biodiversity in the Pliocene of southern Australia.

The fossil bone, is just part of a large collection built up over forty years by amateur fossil collector Ross Wilkie.  The collection also consists of fossils of prehistoric dolphins, sharks, whales and even penguins.  The collection will provide scientists with more material to study and it will help them to understand more about the marine fauna that existed in this part of the world approximately five million years ago.  For Mr Wilkie, he was prompted to donate his collection after reading a newspaper article about the importance of fossil finds in the Beaumaris cliffs area.

Mr Wilkie explained that he has always had an interest in rocks, minerals and fossils, his fascination starting in his childhood, when he came across a fossilised shark’s tooth whilst skin-diving in Beaumaris Bay.  The museum staff are always delighted to receive such donations and they are the first to acknowledge the contribution made to geology and palaeontology by amateurs, after all, if the material was not collected from Beaumaris, it could easily be destroyed by erosion and lost to science forever.

Dr. Fitzgerald, praised Ross Wilkie for his kind gesture and stated:

“Palaeontology is one of the few branches of science where literally anyone can make a big impact by finding just one fossil.  By donating his remarkable fossils to a public museum collection, Mr Wilkie ensured they will be studied, which will shed light on their broader significance and preserve them for future generations.”

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