Blood from a stone: A fossil history of life, death and the mayhem in between

Over the last six months, Victoria University of Wellington has teamed up with GNS Science, Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand, Wellington Zoo and ZEALANDIA Ecosanctuary for a series all about fossils.

James talks to a crowd of people by a car. There are fossils on the ground. It's a sunny day and the blue sky and sea can be seen behind everyone.

Professor James Crampton, who works across the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences and GNS Science, organised the series with the help of Associate Professor Mike Hannah from the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, and Dr Liz Kennedy and Dr Joe Prebble from GNS Science.

“I think there’s a big public appetite for learning about fossils, deep time, extinction, and the evolution of life. Fossils can be a great hook to draw the public into this type of science,” says Professor Crampton. “To the best of our knowledge, Earth is the only place in the universe that is home to life.  People often wonder how, and why, all this life developed, so we set about trying to answer some of these questions.”

The lectures referred specifically to the fossil record preserved in our isolated slice of the planet—Aotearoa New Zealand, and the drowned continent of Zealandia.

“The New Zealand fossil record is incredibly important. Zealandia represents a great chunk of the Earth’s surface, so we have the fossil record for a substantial part of the world. It’s a fantastic archive and resource for us to try and understand the history of life,” says Professor Crampton.

“Fossils provide a whole series of natural experiments about what can happen to the environment, what can happen to biodiversity, and what can happen to ecosystems over time. It means that if we want to know what might happen in the future, we can look back to the past.”

The first lecture was held at Te Papa, where Professor Crampton talked about the development of biodiversity on Earth. The following lecture looked at the other side of that coin—Associate Professor Mike Hannah talked at Wellington Zoo about mass extinctions and questioned whether we were living through one today.

The final two focused more on New Zealand. Dr Liz Kennedy spoke at ZEALANDIA ecosanctuary about the fossils found in our own country and the development of our unique flora and fauna since Zealandia split away from the super-continent Gondwana, and Dr Joe Prebble talked at Kelburn campus about what fossils can tell us about how the environment of New Zealand, and the surrounding ocean, has changed over the last few million years.

The series concluded on Saturday 12 October with a field trip to the Hurupi stream in southern Wairarapa to search for the fossils of 10-million-year-old shellfish and whale bones. Around 80 people from Wellington took part in this search and heard about the unique geological history of the area.

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