May 2021

The Nation Reviewed

Fish out of mortar

By Drew Rooke

Saving Canowindra’s ancient fish fossils

The sun-faded metal sign rising from the rocky slope is a humble marker for such a remarkable place. Squeezed between the fence line of a sheep farm and a bend on a dirt road just outside Canowindra, a small town on Wiradjuri country in the central west of NSW, it reads: “THE ORIGINAL FISH FOSSIL SITE”.

It’s quiet here but for a flock of screeching cockatoos overhead, and the rustling papery leaves of the few remaining gum trees that haven’t been cleared from the sheep farm.

Attached to the farm’s barbed-wire fence is another, much smaller sign erected by the local council warning that the removal of material from the area is strictly prohibited. But the abundance of chipped and upturned slabs of weathered rock on the ground suggests that many visitors have flouted this prohibition and pocketed pieces of the profound puzzle buried here – one that helps to explain the history of life on Earth.

A short drive away, in the middle of town, is the Age of Fishes Museum, where some of the biggest and most important pieces of this puzzle are on display. According to manager Anne Clark, the small museum “basically runs on the smell of an oily rag”: it is operated almost exclusively by volunteers and has been funded mainly by donations since it opened in 2000.

A fast talker with short blonde hair and friendly blue eyes, Clark had never heard about Canowindra’s scientific significance until she became the manager of the museum four years ago, even though she has lived in the region for most of her life.

“Most Australians don’t know that there are hundreds of millions of years of the history of the world sitting right here in Canowindra, on the doorstep of Sydney and Canberra,” she says.

The large sandstone slabs on display at the museum contain perfectly preserved impressions of more than 4000 ancient fish. At least eight species are represented, some previously unknown to science.

The most abundant are two small, mud-eating armoured fish that belong to a long-extinct group of placoderms. Also evident are less-common fish such as Mandageria fairfaxi, a 2-metre-long top predator with a powerful jaw and torpedo-shaped body, which is now the state fossil emblem for NSW; Soederberghia simpsoni, one of the earliest species of lungfish; Canowindra grossi, an air-breathing, lobe-finned fish; and Groenlandaspis, a half-metre-long armoured fish with a dorsal ridge on its spade-shaped head, which was first discovered in Greenland’s icy mountains in the 1930s.

All of these fish lived during the Late Devonian period, approximately 360 million years ago, and likely died together when the freshwater pool they inhabited dried up during a severe drought. Then, very soon afterwards, before they decomposed, they were covered in a layer of fine sediment – possibly deposited by a large flood – which preserved their shape and fine detail, and eventually cemented into rock.

To see their ghosts is humbling: it is a reminder of just how old life really is and also of the fishy ancestry in all of us. As Professor John Long, a palaeontologist from Flinders University, explains: “Much of the evolution of the human body is basically revealed when you look at the structures that developed in Devonian fishes.” These structures include lungs and limbs that allowed fish to leave water and live on land. “And then after [these structures] appeared in fishes,” Long says, “they were only fine-tuned to create reptiles and mammals and birds and dinosaurs. No big new structures appeared after that; this was the time when all of the new structures appeared that would eventually delineate the human body plan.”

Adding to the significance of the Devonian fish specimens found at Canowindra is how well preserved they are. “It’s one of the few sites in Australia where you get whole complete Devonian fishes,” Long says. “There are hundreds of sites where you can collect remains of Devonian fishes, but they’re generally isolated bits – bones or teeth – and not whole, complete, perfect fishes. But at Canowindra, they’re in a beautiful three-dimensional format.” Sir David Attenborough agrees. He visited the Age of Fishes Museum in 2013 and described the fish fossils on display there as world class.

The person largely responsible for unearthing these highly regarded fossils was Dr Alex Ritchie, a former head of palaeontology at the Australian Museum. These days, 86-year-old Ritchie is suffering from dementia and is cared for by his daughter, Shona. But his memory about his long career – and especially about the time he spent in Canowindra – is, like his thick Scottish accent and sense of humour, still largely intact.

His Canberra home is a mini-museum: displayed in most rooms are plaster and fibreglass casts of fossils he found on digs in Australia and overseas. There are many hundreds more stored in huge filing cabinets in the garage, behind which is a small shed that houses Ritchie’s field notes, extensive scientific library and even more palaeontological curios.

Ritchie’s huge archive speaks to his lifelong dedication to learning about how life on Earth evolved. He’s a staunch anti-creationist and proudly retells the story of when he was evicted from a creationist meeting held in Sydney many years ago for heckling a presenter.

“That was fun; I’d do it all again,” he says, adding that “the truth is far more exciting than the nonsense of creationism”.

Ritchie’s pursuit of knowledge about evolution began when he was a boy in West Calder, an oil-shale mining town just west of Edinburgh. His father, a miner, taught him the basics about geology and he quickly became fascinated by the wealth of information stored in rocks. Ritchie says he was a loner during his school years, less interested in making friends than in finding fossils near his home.

“I’d just take myself away to have a dig. I went to places that I probably shouldn’t have. And that was when I got hooked.”

He refined his childhood hobby at the University of Edinburgh, where he studied geology and later completed a PhD on Silurian-era fish, which lived roughly 400 million years ago. When he arrived in Sydney with his wife and two children in 1968, to commence work as the Australian Museum’s head palaeontologist, he says he was essentially given “a licence to explore the continent for fossils”.

Ritchie utilised this licence extensively until he retired, but this came at a cost to his family. “He was off on digs all of the time,” Shona says. “He was an absent father and an absent husband.” Still, she is immensely proud of her father’s achievements and grateful for him “showing me the value of science, learning and knowledge”.

Ritchie’s specific interest in Canowindra began soon after he started working at the Australian Museum, where there was a large sandstone slab on display. The first piece of the much larger puzzle that Ritchie would go on to dedicate his career to deciphering, it had been serendipitously found in 1955 by a bulldozer driver working on the dirt road where the metal sign now stands just outside the town. On its undersurface were immaculate impressions of more than 110 Late Devonian-era fish.

Ritchie remembers that he had “never seen a slab before with so many well-preserved and different fishes in one spot”. It made him determined to find the fossil layer it had been removed from.

To that end he made several trips to Canowindra between 1973 and 1990 but didn’t have any success, largely because he lacked the equipment and council approval required to conduct a deep, large-scale dig.

In September 1992, a well-connected Canowindra local who was passionate about fossils arranged for Ritchie to pitch to some of the town’s councillors his case for the scientific importance of searching the area for more fish fossils. His argument was persuasive: it ultimately led to the council agreeing to lend him an excavator for 10 days, free of charge, to lead a dig at the site where the original rock slab had been found 37 years before.

In January 1993, Ritchie and a large volunteer team of Canowindra locals conducted a short trial dig at the site, and within three hours had found the fossil layer they were looking for. Six months later, Ritchie returned to lead a 10-day dig, and this was when he unearthed the fish fossil slabs now on display at the Age of Fishes Museum.

It was, Ritchie says, “one of the greatest finds of my career”.

But Ritchie believed there was still more to find at the site – including possibly the southern hemisphere’s first four-legged animal, known as a tetrapod – and dreamt that one day either he or someone else would conduct an even more extensive dig there.

There has, however, been little support for Ritchie’s dream since the original dig was completed 28 years ago. In fact, the site is not even heritage listed and, until 2019, when the museum was finally able to secure funding from the NSW government and local council for a new, purpose-built storage facility, the bulk of the 200-odd fish fossil slabs that Ritchie recovered were stored beneath the grandstand at the Canowindra Showground.

“They were literally dumped on top of each other,” Anne Clark remembers. “They were falling on each other and falling apart.” For Clark, this encapsulated the much broader problem “that science really isn’t valued in Australia at all”.

But Ritchie’s fading dream of reopening the fish-fossil site was recently invigorated by yet another dose of good luck and goodwill.

In January, Canberra-based fossil enthusiasts David and Aleysha McGrath were looking to buy a retirement property when they learnt that the sheep farm where Ritchie had found the fish fossils was listed for sale.

David McGrath, who had visited Canowindra soon after Ritchie’s dig in the ’90s, was shocked. He thought it was crazy that he, a “Joe Blow”, could simply walk in off the street and buy such an important scientific site, and wondered why it didn’t enjoy the same formal protection and recognition as Miguasha National Park, a World Heritage–listed Devonian-era fish fossil site in Quebec, Canada.

“I knew we’d have to step up to the plate and buy it,” McGrath says. He and his wife have only just finalised the purchase, and their vision is to reopen the site to search for more fossils.

“What we really want is to understand the whole ecology at the time,” McGrath says. “How did the animals interact with each other? What plants were there? And what was the climate at the time? These are all very important questions that need answering … We need to see where we’ve come from if we’re to know how to survive the future.”

Ritchie is pleased that the site has fallen into safe hands, and that his dream might just come true. But he knows that, due to his age, any future pieces of the puzzle of life that are found there will have to happen without his contribution.

“I’ve had my day,” Ritchie says. “I’ve had my fun. I’m happy to pass the baton on to someone else to carry now.”

Drew Rooke

Drew Rooke is a journalist and the author of One Last Spin: The Power and Peril of the Pokies.

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