September 01, 2001

Article at Newton Magazine

The Bone Collector

Patricia Vickers-Rich

Patricia Vickers-Rich is a palaeontologist with an infectious enthusiasm for the past, who’s travelled the world in her quest to understand the creatures, climates and ecologies of long ago. 

By Wilson da Silva 

SHE MAY BE a recognised international authority on dinosaurs of the Southern Hemisphere, and a leading player in the understanding the early development of birds. But she’s also a parent who couldn’t resist the temptation to name a fossil species or two after her kids. Not just any fossil, though, but the most prized of them – dinosaurs.

“When my daughter was four, we’d read her a bedtime story about a little boy who’d found a dinosaur, and we promised we’d find one for her – she meant a live one, of course,” grins Vickers-Rich, a professor of palaeontology at Melbourne’s Monash University. “We named one after her when she turned 12. Then our son felt a bit left out … so we had to wait a few years to find an appropriately impressive new dinosaur to name after him, too.”

The new dinosaur species were Leaellynasaura amicagraphica, a fast-running, plant-eating dinosaur that lived between 115 and 110 million years ago, named after her daughter Leaellyn in 1989. Later, Timimus hermani – a smart, meat-eating theropod dinosaur living in Australia around the same time – was named after her son Tim … as well as one of Vickers-Rich’s favourite students, Tim Flannery (author of The Future Eaters and now director of the South Australian Museum). 

These represent some of the very few dinosaur species ever named after people. But as Vickers-Rich will explain, there’s plenty of scope: it’s estimated that less than one per cent of all the dinosaurs that ever lived have been discovered. Out there, in the far and undiscovered horizons of fossil digs to come, there is more than enough potential for those seeking immortality.

Vickers-Rich is a tall, lanky and personable American with a wide-eyed enthusiasm for the subject area she has made her life: the study of ancient and bizarre vertebrate fauna (or backboned animals) that once walked the Earth. Her eyes sparkle when she talks about the dark polar nights of Gondwana – the supercontinent made up of Australia, South America, Africa, India and Antarctica – that existed in the Early Cretaceous period, between 105 and 115 million years ago. 

Leaellynasaura amicagraphica lived between 115 and 110 million years ago. Its remains were found at Dinosaur Cove, a site which has yielded truckloads of bones, and 20 years of work for Patricia and husband Tom Rich and colleagues (Masato Hattori) 
The ancient supercontinent of Gondwana, encompassing Australia, South America, Africa, India and Antarctica; it existed between 550 million years ago and 180 million years ago

Her arms flay to and fro as she describes a typical day in the cold climes of southern Australia long, long ago. She occasionally stands to snatch one of the countless books and journals that line her neat office from floor to the ceiling, or the notes (printed and hand-written) of every conference she has ever attended, all nestled among the bric-a-brac of fossils and mementos, the postcards and photos of family and students at various digs around the world. The office where she now stands excitedly recounting her story, in the north-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, was once just 500 km from the South Pole. 

To Vickers-Rich, it’s as if it was yesterday.  “In terms of the Earth’s history, it wasn’t all that long ago, you know,” she says. 

There’s more than a hint of a Californian accent, despite three decades in Australia. And there’s something very approachable about her, a kind of ease and country familiarity one is immediately drawn to. Which is appropriate, really: Patricia Vickers was born on a farm in California, and from an early age was picking and hoeing cotton, grading apples and oranges, milking cows and driving farm machinery. Her father, a dirt-poor Tennessee farmer, had brought his brothers and sisters out to California to help them out, and over time about half of his large extended family lived and worked on the farm.

Her parents had little formal education. Her father completed sixth grade but then quit school to work and support his parents with their large and growing family. His writing and maths were terrible, although he could count well enough when it came to practical applications. Her mother had training in accountancy and had yearned to go to university but had been denied by her own father who had, nevertheless, sent his two boys off to college – neither of whom even wanted it.

And although neither of her parents were scientists, they were clear thinkers and hard workers with a firm belief that work and a practical, no-nonsense approach to life achieved the best results. 

“From an early age, they took me seriously and filled me with confidence,” recalls Vickers-Rich. “[Told me] that whatever I chose to do, I should do it … follow my own curiosity and dreams, and they would do everything they could to help me get there.”

True to their word, her parents made great sacrifices to ensure their daughter could attend university, selling the farm and moving with her to be near the University of California at Berkeley. “We had just enough to rent a small house, buy a beat-up old bomb of a car, and all go to work to earn enough to get by on,” Vickers-Rich says. “We had a ball. And mum finally got her university experience: she went to work in the Entomology Department at the university as a clerk, sitting in on classes when she could.”

For a country girl who had thought Mount Whitney High School and its 3000 students was big, Berkeley was mind-blowing. “At first I felt quite at sea amongst the 30,000 plus students. There were Nobel laureates coming out of the walls, some even teaching first and second-year courses.”

Originally planning a medical degree, she wilted when she discovered Berkeley had 4000 medical students. Palaeontology, on the other hand, was a much smaller department, peopled with interesting and friendly characters. Having collected fossils ever since she was a girl, she opted for biology of the ancient kind. Later, she met her husband-to-be, Tom Rich, “who then became my partner in palaeontological mischief”.

After graduation and now married, the couple moved to take up posts at Columbia University in New York in 1967. It was a time of turmoil in palaeontology and geology; great battles about whether continents moved over the millennia or stayed put were still raging. Vickers-Rich and her husband were thrown right into the thick of it, working alongside the maps of the ocean floor, the seismologists and the geologists who were engrossed in the multi-disciplinary effort to settle the question. “It was one of the most exciting times in the history of geology to be a graduate student,” Vickers-Rich says. 

Tom Rich and Patricia Vickers-Rich

The debate influenced her doctoral thesis: to determine the evolutionary history of a group of birds of gargantuan proportions that once walked Australia, the dromornithids, ancestors of modern emus and cassowaries. The problem had been tackled by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in the 19thcentury, and many others since. The prevailing theory was that these birds had originated in the Northern Hemisphere and had, over time, moved into Australia, become isolated and then followed their own unusual evolutionary path. It was a decidedly Northern Hemisphere-biased view. 

After much study, including visits to Australia, Vickers-Rich proposed in her thesis that dromornithids originated in one of the other landmasses that were joined to Australia long ago: South America, Africa, Antarctica or India. As the continents broke up, they were isolated and the ‘leftovers’ then evolved their own separate ways, establishing the new forms that appeared as Australia broke away the other Gondwana fragments and moved north over the last 60 million years.

Her field trips to Australia and her study of collections held by museums across the country energised her. “I had to return,” she says. “There was this vast continent to explore and such great gaps in the fossil record to be filled, that both Tom and I agreed – we had to go back.”

And she did. Vickers-Rich won a Fullbright scholarship to spend a year in Australia continuing her work on birds. But then in 1973, she was back in the United States after landing an associate professor’s position at Texas Tech University, in the flatlands of west Texas. That was great – only that shortly after, her husband landed a job as a curator of palaeontology at the Museum of Victoria in Australia. “Thus began two years of a commuter marriage – not really to be advised,” she says, clearly not savouring the experience.

In 1975, she walked away from a full-time, tenured position at Texas Tech to work as a part-time tutor at Monash University in Melbourne. It was a difficult decision, but she sees it as a gamble that paid off. Australia beckoned for both of them – for Tom Rich, it was the evolutionary history of mammals, for Vickers-Rich, it was birds and their links with dinosaurs. “Pioneering work in my field was the central issue … [there was] the real possibility of making interesting new discoveries,” she says. And at least they would be in the same city.

For a decade, Vickers-Rich chased older and older bird fossils, while Tom chased older and older mammal fossils. They worked in many isolated parts of central Australia, found a number of new fossil fields that began to fill in the gaps of knowledge as far back as 30 million years ago. But ghastly blanks remained in the origins of Australia’s mammalian and bird fauna. 

Pat Vickers-Rich (centre) with a model of the tiny warm-blooded polar dinosaur, Leaellynasaura, with manager Paul Thompson (left) and dinosaur enthusiast Greg Denney at the opening of an exhibition at the Cape Otway Lightstation

They began to get frustrated that fossils from rocks older than about 30 million years were just not being found. Apart from a few feathers of ancient birds and a whole lot of fish fossils, there was nothing. That all changed when two of her graduate students, Tim Flannery and John Long, found a dinosaur bone near Cape Paterson south of Melbourne. The find triggered a wider search. As the 1980s progressed, the site now known as Dinosaur Cove yielded truckloads of treasure – a unique assemblage of fossil animals and plants. 

Over the next two decades, Vickers-Rich and her husband, working with countless students and some 500 volunteers as well as colleagues, uncovered evidence of an ancient ecosystem with no modern counterpart, with high biodiversity at a latitude that experienced at least three months of total darkness every year. There was evidence of massive forests and polar dinosaurs, some of which appeared to be warm-blooded and others that probably hibernated in winter. They found fossils of what may well be the oldest placental mammals, as well as an unbroken sequence of climatic evidence spanning 20 million years, during which Earth went from a greenhouse planet to an icehouse.

Over the years, as the discoveries kept coming, her studies took her to Africa, New Zealand, Argentina, Japan and Alaska. Trying to piece together various puzzles took her on a chase to countries that once abutted southern Australia. But they also spawned a series of other questions that took her to China and deepest Russia. 

It was in Russia in the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, that she found demoralised palaeontologists with stunning collections of dinosaurs fossils but no money to fund their research. Back in Australia, she pulled together a group of publicists, marketers and scientists, as well as a collection of sponsors like airlines, chemical companies and TV stations, to organise a gargantuan exhibition of Russian fossils. 

The result was an exhibition that was to tour the world from 1993 to 1997. It has been seen by more than two million people and raised more than $5 million for Russian scientists. In the process, Vickers-Rich established the Monash Science Centre at her university in 1993, of which she is the director and which made some $500,000 from the exhibition. The centre has reinvested in more science promotion and communication activities, including running a schools outreach program that annually sees 40,000 children come through the centre. 

Pat Vickers Rich and Tom Rich, with a model of the first nocturnal dinosaur, discovered in Victoria's Otway Ranges

Along the way, she found time to write eight books, 121 scientific papers, supervise the masters, honours or doctoral degrees of 29 students, develop eight laboratory manuals and raise more than A$2.5 million in research grants from Australian and foreign funding agencies. Vickers-Rich has won a clutch of awards, including Museum Victoria’s 1998 Crosbie Morrison Medal, the Australian Museum’s 1993 Eureka Award for the Promotion of Science and even a Michael Daley Award for Science Journalism. 

Her passion remains research, but she is keen to share her passion with everyone else. Leaning on her experience with exhibitions, she has raised enough money to erect a new building for the Monash Science Centre in the university’s Clayton campus. Set in parkland next to a lake, it is made largely of recycled materials and designed to be environmentally friendly and energy efficient, requiring no central air conditioning or heating, despite Melbourne’s chilly days, thanks to ‘smart architecture’ – the use of passive heating and cooling. 

Watching her as she pores over the plans for the building, one cannot help but be impressed by Vickers-Rich, a dynamo of a woman who seems to infect her surrounding staff and students with palpable enthusiasm. This centre is her passion now: she rails against bureaucrats and narrow-minded leaders who only champion science with an immediate application or a quick pay-off.

With such a narrow approach, we wouldn’t have antibiotics, aircraft and HIV vaccines. We would never have known that an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs, that the Universe was born with the Big Bang, and Benjamin Franklin wouldn’t have discovered electricity. Isaac Newton didn’t set out to ‘discover’ gravity, but his laws of motion still guide engineers and airline pilots today.

“The centre deals not only with science and technology, but with art and music, and with curiosity and imagination … the way science really works,” she says. “Intellectual curiosity in all its forms should be encouraged … and people should all be nurtured to follow their dreams.”

Vickers-Rich pauses, the veil lifting. “In some respects, we are swimming against the tide. But people should be nurtured to follow their dreams.”

As did a country girl many years ago, no doubt.