Paleontologists / The Sunday Times / Writers

Patricia Vickers-Rich and Tom Rich: Dinosaurs in the Darkness

There’s a dinosaur in the garden. His pedigree is somewhat confused though he’s clearly a carnivore – that much is obvious from his sharp, white teeth says Dr. Patricia Vickers-Rich, patting him affectionately on his green cement head. ‘Tyron’ has lived in the quiet house on Barnes Place for a while now and in fact it was a picture of him taken with his owner, the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke, that originally brought Pat and her husband Dr. Thomas H. Rich into Clarke’s life.

A correspondence between Australia and Sri Lanka, which began with a request for a copy of the picture, ended with an invitation for Tom and Pat to visit the island. Themselves palaeontologists, the couple were pleased to find that Clarke’s interest in science fiction stemmed in part from a great childhood love of dinosaurs. It was they who conferred upon Clarke an honour he would not soon forget – in 2003 they named a dinosaur after him. Upon hearing of the christening of ‘Serendipaceratops arthurcclarkei’, Clarke reportedly told friends – ‘I’ve had an asteroid named after me and I’ve had a dinosaur named after me, now what’s there to live for?’

An old friend: Pat with the dinosaur in Arthur C. Clarke’s garden.

“Arthur’s dinosaur”, as Pat likes to refer to it, was a sturdy little frilled dinosaur, a herbivore by diet. Its frill could have been put to a variety of uses – it could have been employed to help it regulate its body temperature, may have served as a defence against predators attacking the nape of its neck or even as a flamboyant sexual display used to woo potential mates. With no horns for defence and only around 6ft in length, Serendipaceratops may have lived in groups, seeking protection in numbers from the large predators. However, for the scientists who only have an ulna or lower arm bone (albeit a very distinctive one) to go by, a lot of this is necessarily speculation.

Some of their guess work is based on what they know of another more common, remarkably similar creature – ‘Leptoceratops gracilis’ lived in the Late Cretaceous in what is now Canada. Place the bones of Serendipaceratops and Leptoceratops side by side and the resemblance leaps out, even though a part of the former is missing. “This is the case although Leptoceratops found in Alberta, Canada and 70 million years old is about 50 million years younger than Serendipaceratops (120 million years old) and was 15,000 km from South Eastern Australia,” says Tom, explaining that they’ll need to find more remains before they can solve this puzzle.

For now, their findings have forced the scientific community to revaluate some of their conclusions about the earliest Ceratopsian dinosaurs. This is why Serendipaceratops remains the subject of some controversy. Though its lineage is under question, Pat and Tom are its fierce champions and say they will be releasing a paper co-authored by several other experts on Ceratopsian dinosaurs in defence of Arthur’s dinosaur later this year, finally laying the matter to rest. “We’ll put it back where it belongs,” Pat says confidently.

Today, Pat is occupied with running the Monash Science Centre at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia but she and Tom are perhaps best known for their work in Dinosaur Cove in Victoria – arguably the only ‘dinosaur mine’ in the world – which they began excavating in the late 1970s. “That was quite an operation,” says Pat. Unlike chance finds in commercial mines, here the palaeontologists had to employ sledgehammers and dynamite to follow promising channels into a solid cliff and break open thousands of rocks and pebbles to find what they were looking for. “For every 1 kg of fossiliferous rock recovered, 30 kg of overburden had to be removed,” Tom would later write. The effort, however, was made worthwhile by the scarcity of dinosaur specimens in Australia.

Pat and Tom would find 10,000 bones – “which is not very many,” Pat hurries to clarify. After multiple decades combing the site, the team however had the privilege of identifying new dinosaurs. These included the theropod Leaellynasaura (which they named after their daughter) and the ornithomimid Timimus (which they named after their son); but with both dinosaurs to root for, sibling rivalry manifested in interesting ways in the Rich household. Pat says, “our daughter’s dinosaur was a herbivorous dinosaur…we found out only later on that our son’s dinosaur was related to T-Rex. Our daughter was not happy about this because the first thing my son had asked us when we named his dinosaur was ‘can I eat my sister’s dinosaur?’”

The children’s namesakes were of great interest to the wider world as well, because the Australian specimens from dinosaur cove, each over a 100 million years old, were challenging what experts thought they knew about dinosaur habitats. When these dinosaurs walked the earth, it was unimaginably different. For one, all the southern continents were connected. “At one point you could have probably walked from here to Australia – saved on the airfares,” Pat quips. Australia would have actually been located in the polar latitudes and these animals would have had to live in near-Antarctic conditions – enduring months of darkness and temperatures below freezing.

“Although there weren’t ice caps there at time, it was cool, cooler than places where dinosaurs typically occurred,” says Pat, pointing out that only the dinosaurs in Alaska would have lived in similar conditions. There’s evidence that they adapted successfully to the demands of this environment.

One of Pat’s many books, the Eureka award-winning ‘Dinosaurs of Darkness’ (2000) chronicled their finds.

Sadly, Pat and Tom think it unlikely that dinosaur fossils could be found in Sri Lanka, the conditions aren’t right. They are looking, however, for an opportunity to bring down a few as part of a travelling exhibition, perhaps even the one they built around ‘Dinosaurs of Darkness’. While we chat, we are also filmed for a documentary they are making about Clarke. Pat would like to see his office maintained just as it is along with the documents and books therein, which they are helping to sort through. In fact, it is their hope that his house will be preserved carefully for posterity, as an open window into the kind of man Clarke was. “He lived a very simple life. He was such a kind man,” says Pat, who clearly misses her friend. “When you go into that office, you think he might be just around the corner.”

When a little boy got hooked on dinosaurs

From ‘Of Sand and Stars’ by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, first printed in the New York Book Times Review of March 6, 1983:

‘The date would have been around 1925; we were riding in a small pony cart near the Somerset farm into which First Lieutenant Charles Wright Clarke had sunk what was left of his army gratuity, after an earlier and still more disastrous adventure as a gentleman farmer. As he opened a pack of cigarettes, he handed me the card inside; it was one of a series illustrating prehistoric animals. From that moment, I became hooked on dinosaurs, collected all the cards I could on the subject, and used them in class to illustrate the little adventure stories I told the other children in the village school. These must have been my first ventures into fiction…

There is a certain irony in the fact that the tobacco trade (one of the few professions where I consider mandatory death penalty is justified) had such a decisive and indeed beneficial impact on my career. To this day I retain my collection fascination with dinosaurs and eagerly look forward to the time when the genetic engineers will recreate Tyrannosaurus rex.’

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on June 11, 2012. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Susantha Liyanawatte.

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