Transcript

Prehistoric Life with Ben Kear


You can also listen to the interview (MP3 15.6MB).

Matt Smith:

This is La Trobe University podcast. I'd be your host, Matt Smith. Good morning, good afternoon and good evening; it does all depend on where you're standing. And joining me today is, well, to tell you the truth joining me today should be Dr. Ben Kear. He is a paleontologist at La Trobe. We're supposed to be talking about dinosaur ancestors, but he hasn't turned up. Wait a minute. Don't worry. I've just got a text message. Meet me at the car park, Ben Kear. Sorry about this, listeners, this is highly unorthodox, but let's go.

Ben Kear:

Matt, thank Darwin you're here!

Matt Smith:

Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Ben Kear. [Applause] What's going on, Ben? You're supposed to be talking about early dinosaur ancestors with me today.

Ben Kear:

Talk? Talk? Matt, what are you talking about? I'm not going to talk. I'm going to show you. Quickly, get in the car. This might look like a simple DeLorean but it's actually been outfitted with state of the art time travel equipment. All we have to do is enter the dates, 230 million years and…

Matt Smith:

Two hundred and thirty million years? Million years. Is that a flux capacitor? Where did you get the plutonium from?

Ben Kear:

Best not to ask these things Matt. Okay, put on your seatbelt and hold on to something. You're going to need to get up to 88 miles per hour. Here we go.

Matt Smith:

I haven't taken my library books back yet! Ahhhhhh… Where are we?

Ben Kear:

Well, we're actually in Sydney.

Matt Smith:

Sydney?

Ben Kear:

Yes, to be more precise, Sydney 230 million years ago. Have a look around. It's a little bit different.

Math Smith:

Well, yes. No Harbour Bridge. There's no Sydney harbor at all.

Ben Kear:

No. What you are actually looking at is pine trees. These are actually pine trees which originally now covers most of the southern hemisphere. Remember, we're talking about the southern hemisphere 230 million years ago. We're talking about Gondwana.

Where we're actually standing now in terms of Sydney isn't really Sydney at all. Effectively, it's a most easterly peninsula of a gigantic supercontinent which will eventually involve continents what we call Australia, Antarctica, South America, and all this sort of thing. In fact, right now, you could walk from Sydney to, well, New York if you wanted to.

Matt Smith:

Can we move away to the pine trees. I'm allergic to pine.

Ben Kear:

Okay, okay. Unfortunately…

Matt Smith:

Ben, Ben, Ben. I just stepped on a ant. Is it going to change the future?

Ben Kear:

Quite possibly.

Matt Smith:

Oh no.

Ben Kear:

But don't worry again. We'll deal with that when he comes around. So I suppose what we're here to do now is look at some animals. Let's go see what we can find.

Matt Smith:

Okay, righto.

Ben Kear:

Let's just wander through this huge estuary at the moment. Actually, what you're looking at now is where Sydney is. Sydney is on the coast. At the moment, the coast is actually about three or four K's from here.

So 230 million years ago is where Sydney is now is effectively this massive river delta that you see before you. And the sea and the coastline is some way off. So what we actually find in the Sydney area 230 million years from now is the remains of these animals that lived in the rivers and in these huge pine forests that you see around you.

Matt Smith:

Like that one over there?

Ben Kear:

Yes, that big crocodile-looking thing over there.

Matt Smith:

I don't want to go near him so can we like watch from a distance and admire?

Ben Kear:

We can. We can. But that weird crocodile-looking thing isn't actually a crocodile at all. What that actually is, is an animal called a lambrynthadon amphibian and more precisely a capitosorid, but you don't need to know that one.

Matt Smith:

How can you tell from here?

Ben Kear:

Well, see how its skull looks basically like a huge set of very elongated dinner plates?

Matt Smith:

Yeah.

Ben Kear:

Well, that means it's not a crocodile but actually one of these amphibians. Now, lambrynthadon were kind of amphibian that looks something like a crocodile, tails are a little bit shorter, but they're actually fully aquatic and certainly more closely related to your average frog or newt than they are to a crocodile itself. So giant crocodile amphibians, there's quite a few of these things around.

In fact, Australia has more different kinds of these weird crocodile amphibian-like things at this particular point in time, 230 million years ago, than does any other really fauna, any other continental fauna around at that time. Australia is actually really important. It seems to have been an area of evolution for these things. So we've got our giant sort of crocodile-like friend over there acapitosorid. There's actually different kinds of amphibians around. Let's take a wonder over this other part of the swamp over here.

Matt Smith:

Yeah, gumboots would have been helpful.

Ben Kear:

Don't step in that big pile of…

Matt Smith:

Yeah, yeah, okay, right.

Ben Kear:

Let's have a look in this pond. See that little thing that looks a bit like a small crocodile-type thing, type fishy thingy swinging around? That weird fishy crocodile thing is another kind of these lambrynthadon. Look at his head. It looks more like a couple of basically tea sauces.

Matt Smith:

Wait, wait, wait. I think I'm going to reach it. Should I pick it up? Should I pick it up?

Ben Kear:

You could give it a go.

Matt Smith:

Oh, you're right, mate. You're right, you're right, you're right. Okay.

Ben Kear:

Okay, so this thing you've got in your hand, basically this is what we call a Brachiopid. This is a different kind of these weird amphibians. They're aquatic. They actually can live under water. Look at its skin. See these weird lines on it.

Matt Smith:

Oh, he's ticklish.

Ben Kear:

Yeah, yeah. Well, the weird lines are actually lateral lines and they work something like a fish. So he is detecting vibrations in the water and any little fish in this sort of stuff and that's how he catches his food.

Matt Smith:

So can he breathe out here?

Ben Kear:

He can. They have lungs.

Matt Smith:

Oh.

Ben Kear:

So put your finger in his mouth. Finger his mouth open.

Matt Smith:

Oh, teeth, hello.

Ben Kear:

Yeah, there's teeth.

Matt Smith:

Okay, okay, okay. If I don't hurt him, he won't hurt me. If I don't hurt, him he won't hurt me, right?

Ben Kear:

There you go. See, now, look at those teeth.

Matt Smith:

Yeah, yeah.

Ben Kear:

Those teeth are pretty clear indicators of what he's eating.

Matt Smith:

Ah, fish?

Ben Kear:

Exactly. So this guy is a fish-eater. So he obviously lives in this swamps and ponds and feeds off all…

Matt Smith:

Cealocanths.

Ben Kear:

Yeah, he feeds off Cealocanths. Well, how about we take a look at some of the fish and see what's around?

Matt Smith:

Okay, wait, wait. Okay, be free little one. Ah, look at him swim; beautiful. He took my ring!

Ben Kear:

Ah, you can never trust these.

Matt Smith:

He took my wristwatch!

Ben Kear:

Worst than monkeys in Bali. Anyway, let's wade through this puddle and let's see what else we can find.

Matt Smith:

Right.

Ben Kear:

Okay, let's get in a little deeper into this. A little bit of an estuary here.

Matt Smith:

Okay.

Ben Kear:

It's kind of quite pleasant, not too cold.

Matt Smith:

I'm glad you're enjoying it.

Ben Kear:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, hang on, just something you feel around with your toe. Let's see what we can find. I might get some lung fish in here.

Matt Smith:

Oh, good, good, good. Do they eat toes?

Ben Kear:

Generally not. They usually…

Matt Smith:

My toe is not a snail. My toe is not a snail.

Ben Kear:

Do you feel that really unpleasant sort of slimy thing sitting in the mud just underneath.

Matt Smith:

It's all unpleasant slimy

Ben Kear:

Well, basically this guy, we can't really see but you can certainly feel, is a lung fish and lung fish are around even with this far in to the future, more than rivers, large rivers off Brisbane now. But certainly, their ancestors evolved much earlier than when we are now 230 million years ago but virtually are unchanged from what we see as the lung fish around in this Triassic environment.

So the lung fish we have here certainly have their distant, distant descendants living near Brisbane in the future. So you can see that there are different kinds of animals that are still living way, way in the future that we have way back here in the past.

So if you want one of the success stories of these bizarre Triassic environment, things like lung fish, thing like snails and all the basics that we see in the gardens and ponds around us had their ancestors way, way, way back here in the Triassic so it's actually very important period of time.

Matt Smith:

It's that because they have perfectly adapted the environment and have a need to change at all?

Ben Kear:

Well, they've just done extremely well for the environments they have and certainly rivers here in the Triassic are no different from rivers in the future and they're certainly doing the same kinds of things.

Matt Smith:

Can I stop standing on this lung fish now?

Ben Kear:

Yes, you can

Matt Smith:

Okay.

Ben Kear:

Let's go looking for more fish.

Matt Smith:

Okay.

Ben Kear:

What we're actually looking for is something a bit bigger and something a bit more toothy.

Matt Smith:

Okay.

Ben Kear:

Let's have a look around. You see that large, white swimming towards you?

Matt Smith:

Yes.

Ben Kear:

It's kind of getting closer.

Matt Smith:

When you said bigger?

Ben Kear:

Yeah, it's getting pretty big. We're talking, it shouldn't be much more than a couple of meters so I wouldn't worry too much.

Matt Smith:

Okay.

Ben Kear:

Just when you feel the bite.

Matt Smith:

Ahh!

Ben Kear:

Don't jump too much. Now you feel the teeth digging in. Okay, that's good. This large thing latched on to your foot at the moment is actually Saurichthys. This is a very, very common, very large predatory fish that we find in the Triassic. Saurichthys is found in this deposits around Sydney. It's also found in places all over the world including the Middle East, northern hemisphere, anywhere you like.

Saurichthys is just one of the success stories of fish evolution in the Triassic. What can you see? It's effectively a big, long, eel-like thing with very pointed jaws…

Matt Smith:

I could just see a lot of blood.

Ben Kear:

Yes, yes, yes. It's all good, isn't it?

Matt Smith:

Do you have a first aid kit in the DeLorean? You're a doctor. What sort of doctor are you?

Ben Kear:

Well…

Matt Smith:

If I peed on it would it help because I'm way ahead of you.

Ben Kear:

Absolutely, absolutely. That works for everything. But don't worry, we can just perhaps, well look, I can do emergency amputations should they be necessary so everything is under control.

Matt Smith:

Oh, good, okay, happy place.

Ben Kear:

In the meantime, bite down on this pen. So anyway, Saurichthys is really, really important because it's definite indicator of the Triassic and you really don't find Saurichthys fossils anywhere else. So we'd know by finding Saurichthys, nail deposits in Sydney 230 million years in the future that we're working in a Triassic deposit. Okay, spit out the pen. We can shoo this thing away now...

Matt Smith:

Okay.

Ben Kear:

Don't worry, the blood clotting will kick in a few seconds. But we're not actually here really to look at this dying amphibians and these bizarre fish but they are really interesting part of it. What we want to see are these early dinosaur ancestors.

Matt Smith:

Okay.

Ben Kear:

Let's go and find one.

Matt Smith:

All right.

Ben Kear:

Just hobble over here.

Matt Smith:

Yeah, yeah, believe me I'm hobbling. I'm hobbling as fast as I can, right.

Ben Kear:

Okay. Now, let's just have a look between these sort of reeds and these little plumpy vegetation.

Matt Smith:

Shhh, shhh, shhh, yeah.

Ben Kear:

Yeah, yeah, okay. Now, seal this ferns around you. These ferns are actually very important. These things are for Dicrodium . is one of the most common types of plants that we find in these deposits. It's hugely common around this sort of light margins and river estuary, bits and pieces. Now, let's just have a look over here. You see that other thing that looks like very crocodile-like, weird down-turn snout?

Matt Smith:

Yeah.

Ben Kear:

That's our dinosaur ancestor. It's actually unnamed. This beast, we don't actually know what it's called but…

Matt Smith:

We're going to call it Phil.

Ben Kear:

We can call it Phil. We can call it Phil but…

Matt Smith:

He looks like a Phil.

Ben Kear:

He looks like a Phil. Well, describing Phil. Phil is close to 3 meters long. He's pretty big. He's kind of sitting there on his mud bank with his mouth open, kind of sounding himself. He's got weird sort of blade-like teeth in his mouth which are very, very characteristic and Phil eats pretty much whatever Phil wants to eat.

Matt Smith:

When you're 3 meters long, you can.

Ben Kear:

Well, this is it. But what we know of diet from remains of, believe it or not, fossilized droppings from Phil tells us that Phil eat things like the lung fish and different kinds of fish like the Saurichthys we've just seen. And we should clarify Phil. Phil is actually probably closely related to another animal that's been found in Australia called Kalisucas which is a very nice name.

Kali, of course, is the Indian god of death and sucas means crocodile. So basically this sums up our ancient ancestor of dinosaurs, crocodile and birds rather well.

See this crocodile-like thing which we shall call Kalisucas just because I like it slash Phil is really a very, very interesting animal and he's one of the primary reasons why we're working in rocks in this sort of early Triassic age because if we can find these really early ancestors of this whole lineage which today includes things like the salt-water crocodile and your average chicken, is very, very important.

We're looking at the base of this entire radiation includes everything from Tyrannosaurus Rex as well. And really, all comes down to this one point 230 million years ago where you have Phil, the bizarre crocodile thing sitting on a mud bank eating fish. So what you're looking at effectively here Matt, is the most ancient ancestor of dinosaurs, crocodiles and budgerigars.

Matt Smith:

Wow. So did Phil live all over the world?

Ben Kear:

Fossils of Phil and Phil's relatives have been found in Australia. They've also been found in places like South Africa and China. And what it tells us is that these kind of early dinosaur ancestral things which are often frequently called thecadonts but really the name that's most often now applied from this praterrasucids.

These guys are found pretty much all over the world at this point in time and the idea is that they lived pretty much entirely within these river crosses and river systems and these coastal areas so the possibility is they might have freely migrated along these waterways and spread out across the world basically using them as a kind of highway.

So what this means is looking at these deposits in Australia and being able to go back in time to have a look at these animals, we can actually see that the Australian record is very, very important for reconstructing what's going on at the very beginning of the age of dinosaurs. Also important is the fact that where we are, where you're standing now in terms of latitude is not where Sydney is in the future. We're actually much further south.

So effectively, these animals are living in somewhere closer to the southern polar region so we're looking at polar faunas. These animals are evolving in the poles and then they're migrating out from there. See, this is a whole possibility of a very interesting paleobiogeographical picture; where are these animals going, where are they originating. The problem is despite the fact that we can see Phil in his beautiful entirety now…

Matt Smith:

I think he can see us.

Ben Kear:

Yes, he can. He's kind of wandering this way so let's just back off and talk a little bit…

Matt Smith:

Get back off from Phil.

Ben Kear:

Yes, that's right. Don't make direct eye contact.

Matt Smith:

Nice the Phil. Nice the Phil.

Ben Kear:

Yes, nice the Phil. Nice the Phil. How's that blood going?

Matt Smith:

Yeah, it's clotted but he can still smell it.

Ben Kear:

Ah, look at him. Isn't he cute the way he drools that way? Well, while we wander back to the DeLorean and Phil follows us, he's a healthy pace behind, actually you better start jogging.

Matt Smith:

Alright, okay.

Ben Kear:

We can more or less quit the whole reasons of why we're looking at these ancient fossils into perspective. Australia is very, very important. It does represent a sort of weird polar fauna if you like and it does include these very unusual ancestors of very important groups like dinosaurs, crocodiles and birds.

So looking at these localities is really very, very important. The problem is like all fossils, you only get little bits so we've only got a few vertebras that tell us that Phil existed at all. And this is the beauty and the real sort of problem and real difficulty of fossils. It's like a gigantic jigsaw. You only get little bits and then half the pieces don't--you only get little bits of half the pieces.

Matt Smith:

I know you try to justify putting Phil in the trunk but I'm not sharing a seat with him. There's not going to be enough elbow room. I think Phil might have issues back in our time.

Ben Kear:

He may but we can always feed him on goldfish and dogs and cats.

Matt Smith:

Well, you said lung fish is still around.

Ben Kear:

Well, this is true but, well, I suppose. All right. Sorry Phil, you're going to have to leave.

Matt Smith:

Oh, now you hurt on his feelings.

Ben Kear:

Anyway…

Matt Smith:

That's a sad monster.

Ben Kear:

I still think he's cute. So this is the real point of looking at this stuff and why we really need to look at fossils as the only clues that we have for understanding these wonderful faunas; a part of Australia's distant heritage.

Matt Smith:

Yeah, should we get back to the DeLorean now?

Ben Kear:

Yeah, I think I've had my rant

Matt Smith:

Oh, dear.

Ben Kear:

Okay, here we go.

Matt Smith:

Buckle up.

Ben Kear:

Yeah, just press that. And now you can press the red button.

Matt Smith:

Okay, what does the red button do?

Ben Kear:

Just cleans the windscreen. All right, now press the green one.

Matt Smith:

Okay, green button.

Ben:

Ahhhhh!