This story starts and ends with a duck. It also includes volcanoes, subtropical rainforest, an idyllic lake and a team of dedicated scientists. But let’s begin with the duck.
I met the duck in Germany, in 2008. The lovely Ray, my palaeobotanist partner, was attending a conference in Bonn, and I was being a tourist. One day I tagged along on a conference outing to the world-famous Messel fossil site. The bus ride was long, and on the way we stopped at a truckstop for a toilet break, and there I bought the duck as a souvenir. He’s one of those soft toys that makes a noise when squeezed – in his case a very convincing loud, descending, 5-quack noise, just like the black ducks back home.
But it turns out that ducks are actually very relevant to the Messel site. And the New Zealand palaeontologists we were travelling with got very excited about the duck too. Or rather, what happens to duck poo when it falls into a lake, and is then preserved for millions of years.
Yes, we’re talking about fossil poo. The polite term is ‘coprolite’ and here’s me holding one at the Messel fossil site in Germany.
While we wandered around the site, and watched the slaves, er, students splitting rocks to find more fossils, Daphne Lee and Jennifer Bannister (the Kiwi palaeontologists) raved to me about the extraordinary maar lake fossil site that they were working on, back home in New Zealand. This site is called Foulden Maar, and is about 50 km from Dunedin and about 23 million years old. Daphne and her team had unearthed an amazing diversity of plant and animal fossils from this site, and the preservation of the fossils was exquisite. They knew that waterfowl – probably ducks – had lived at Foulden Maar because of the coprolites that had been found. The New Zealand site was probably just as significant as the famous Messel site in Germany, but not as well known. Daphne, Jennifer, and many other scientists (from NZ, Australia and other places, and including Ray) were working hard to change this, and had started to publish what would become a comprehensive series of scientific papers about the Foulden Maar site.
Ray and I said goodbye to Daphne and Jennifer after the conference, and we continued our travels in Europe with the duck, who was excellent company and never complained.
In the years that followed, Ray continued to work on the Foulden Maar fossils, and made a few trips to Dunedin, thanks to the financial support provided by Daphne and the University of Otago. I began to focus more on art, especially recognisable depictions of plants and animals, and completed a series of forest portraits. Then one day Daphne – who has always been enthusiastic about my artwork – invited me to draw a reconstruction of the Foulden Maar fossil site.
It was an exciting opportunity. Not only would I need to imagine a scene, but a scene from a long-vanished ecosystem, centred on a lake that had dried up millions of years ago. But I had plenty of clues to go on – in the form of all the wonderful fossils that have been explained by much detailed scientific work.
What’s more, if you could visit the Foulden Maar fossil site 23 million years ago, you would probably see more similarities with the plants and rainforests of Queensland today than with the present-day forests of New Zealand. Many of the plant species found as fossils from Foulden Maar have close relatives still living in Queensland, New Caledonia, New Zealand and South America. The vegetation type at Foulden Maar was thought to be a notophyll vine forest, similar to the rainforest found at some of my favourite parts of south east Queensland today (e.g. Lamington National Park). Furthermore, when the fossils were forming, Foulden Maar was a volcanic crater lake surrounded by rainforest, and would have been similar to the present-day Lake Eacham in the Atherton Tablelands of North Queensland (also a crater lake).
So my familiarity with the Queensland flora, Lake Eacham, and even the plants of New Caledonia, New Zealand and South America turned out to be very useful. Having a palaeobotanist in the house to answer my many questions was also a great help!
Daphne provided a list of the plants and animals to be included in the picture. It was quite extensive:
“…15 key trees living close enough to drop leaves, flowers or fruit into the lake include:
Lauraceae (Beilschmiedia, Cryptocarya and Litsea) leaves make up about 40 – 50% of all the leaves
Mallotus/Macaranga leaves and flowers
Laurelia leaves and flowers
Dysoxylum leaves and flowers
Myrtaceae (but not Eucalyptus)
Fuchsia – flowers and anthers
One or two Proteaceae (ask Ray….)
Cordyline – cabbage trees large leaves
Ripogonum – liane common leaves
Davallia and Astelia which must have been epiphytes but uncommon
Typha at places around the edge
Insects – termites, ants, bark bugs, scale insects
Galaxias around edge of lake – small to large
mats of diatoms/algae on surface
So I read over many of the papers describing the fossils, and looked at lots of photos, including photos of Lake Eacham.
One challenge was to combine small things (flowers, insects and fish) with a wider view of the site. I ended up with this preliminary sketch, which I sent to Daphne to make sure we were on the same page:
Daphne and her team liked the rough sketch, so I set about creating the final picture. The quality of the fossils from Foulden Maar is extraordinary, so for many plants we have a good idea of what their leaves looked like, and how similar they were to present-day species.
The preservation of many of the animal fossils is also amazing, such as this complete fish skeleton.
No fossils of fruit pigeons have been found at the Foulden Maar site, but their presence is suggested by fossil pigeon remains found nearby, and by abundant Lauraceae plant fossils found at the Maar. The Lauraceae species that still grow in rainforests today are characterised by fleshy fruits that are eaten by birds, especially pigeons.
To Daphne’s original list I also added a Dendrobium orchid, a stonefly, beetle, weevil and spider, all based on fossil evidence.
Fuchsia flowers were a prominent feature of the drawing, and are visited by nectar-eating birds today. So although there is no fossil evidence for nectar-eating birds in New Zealand at that time, I added a shadow that might be a nectar-eating bird. Or might just be a shadow. Can you see it?
And what about the duck? Well I could hardly leave it out, since it was fossil duck poo that first fired my imagination about Foulden Maar, all those years ago in Germany. So in the final picture we have a family of ducks crossing the lake. We’re not sure what species they were, but we do know they were there. A mere 23 million years ago, on a still, rainforest-fringed lake. In the place we now call New Zealand.
This picture appears in a summary paper about Foulden Maar that has just been published in the journal Alcheringa:
Lee, D.E., Kaulfuss, U, Conran, J.G., Bannister, J.M. & Lindqvist, J.K., August 2016. Biodiversity and palaeoecology of Foulden Maar: an early Miocene Konservat–Lagerstätte deposit in southern New Zealand. Alcheringa 40, xxx–xxx. ISSN 0311-5518.
Thanks again to Daphne Lee for commissioning this artwork, to Ray for lots of help with the plants, and to the duck, for inspiration.