Elegant bugs and fossilised flora: a UQ field trip

Hammers thud under a spring sky, as students strike clay and rock from the walls of Dinmore quarry. Each swing is calculated, and each clump of clay, dirt or mud searched thoroughly. They’re searching for dinosaur food: fossilised flora from the Triassic Age. And it’s not just the thrill of the hunt prompting them – on this palaeobiology field trip, they need to find a specimen for their ERTH2002 class for assessment. The UQ News team recently joined the class on their field trip to the quarry – located less than an hour from the St Lucia campus – to see what we could unearth. Lecturer and trip leader Dr Gilbert Price shared his experiences with us.

1. Tell me about the field trip. What do students (and you) do on it?

The quarry that we work in is essentially an outdoor laboratory for us, and we’re prehistoric detectives. We examine the rocks to reconstruct the original environment, and the fossils tell us about the past ecosystem. Despite 220 million years since everything went down, this claystone classroom still provides many lessons for us in terms of climate change and species extinction.

2. What do students get out of it?

The students spend so much time in class listening to lectures, looking at rocks and fossils in prac sessions, and hearing about why it’s all so important. But it’s in the field where everything comes together. The students have an opportunity to look at it all as it occurs in nature. It’s an experience, and it’s real. And there’s no place better to learn than in the field.

3. What kind of things might students discover in the quarry?

99 percent of everything we find is plants, but that’s essentially our focus. However, the quarry yields much more than that. In fact, it’s noted for providing the oldest evidence of dinosaurs on the continent (and some of the oldest on the entire planet), as well as the ancestors to our iconic funnel-web spiders! Recently, one of the students found an insect wing belonging to Ipsviciops elegans (Ipswich’s elegant bug) - that was a ‘first’ for the entire quarry and a specimen that was immediately donated to the Queensland Museum. Other specimens that have been collected on our trips have made it into museum publications such as the book In Search of Ancient Queensland published in 2015.

4. What do students end up doing with their fossils?

The students get to study fossils in every single prac class through the semester. But in most sessions, it’s the teaching staff that provide the specimens. One of the big reasons for our trip to Dinmore is that it provides the students an opportunity to collect their own specimens. They bring them to class the following week and study them as part of the assessment. It’s a great way for the students to contribute to the curriculum, plus saves the teaching staff time in that we don’t have to lay-out specimens for that session!

5. Why is the field trip held at the Dinmore site?

We visit this quarry because it’s one of the best going around. The area is regarded internationally as one of the premier localities for Triassic-aged plant and insect fossils, with researchers coming from all around the planet to study here. We’re just so lucky to have it close by to the university, and are extremely grateful to the quarry owners who have been so gracious in allowing our class to visit it over the years.

Dr Price, a vertebrate palaeoecologist, specialises in the study of megafauna. Read more about his studies at his blog, Diprotodon. You can also catch him in print, with some of Dr Price’s work being selected for the book The Best Australian Science Writing 2016.