The doyenne of dinosaur discovery
Melissa Lowery has a rare talent for finding evidence of dinosaurs, even where others have gone before.
Melissa Lowery is responsible for the discovery of more than 200 bones, and about 100 dinosaur footprints, all in a few short years.
‘It was around three in the afternoon, probably around January, when I found those first footprints and I just couldn’t believe what I was looking at,’ says Melissa.
‘It took me about 10 minutes of just standing there just looking at it thinking, “Am I actually seeing this?”.’
Melissa is one of the volunteers scouring the coast of Inverloch, in south eastern Victoria, with Dinosaur Dreaming—a joint project between Museums Victoria, Monash University and Swinburne University of Technology to search for evidence of dinosaurs from the Early Cretaceous period.
That picturesque stretch of coastline has a prolific history in Australian dinosaur fossil discovery—it’s where the country’s first dinosaur fossil was found by William H Ferguson in 1903.
‘They’re just everywhere, it’s quite unbelievable, it’s a really special spot,’ says Melissa.
Not all of her finds are so spectacular to the average observer, in fact many of them may have gone unnoticed for that very reason.
Perhaps thousands of people have walked over those footprints, retracing the dinosaurs’ steps, either not noticing or not recognising their significance.
‘They’re basically shapes, more than anything, relative inconsistencies within the surface itself—that’s what I look for when I’m looking for footprints,’ says Melissa.
‘A lot of them are minimally expressed, unfortunately, we don’t always get a nice clean surface where they’re wonderfully preserved.’
But even then, each of them tells its own story.
‘Size, the shape of it, how it’s impressed into the sediment, you can gauge whether it was running whether it’s just ambling along—there’s a lot to be learned from footprints,’ she says.
Tracks through time
Palaeontologists and citizen scientists have spent decades combing the foreshore around Inverloch, with some success, but when Melissa joined the group as a new volunteer in late 2019 the number of discoveries exploded.
‘Until a year ago we had two footprints,’ says Museum Victoria’s Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology, Dr Thomas Rich.
‘Now there’s probably in the order of 100 footprints that have been found by Melissa.
‘We’ve been walking over this same area for more than 30 years and nobody else had the eye that she does.’
It is Melissa’s prodigious skill in finding tiny specimens, sometimes just a few millimetres in size, that has earned her the moniker ‘electron microscope’ among her peers.
‘So, when you recognise a talent like this you encourage it, you employ it—I don’t get jealous of her ability, I foster it!
‘Of all the fossil prospectors encountered in my career, there is only one who can match her abilities,’ says Thomas.
‘His name is Andrey Ivantsov and he’s from the palaeontological institute in Moscow.’
The difference is, says Thomas, is that Andrey Ivantsov is a veteran palaeontologist who has spent decades honing his skills, whereas Melissa’s years of experience only stretch into single digits.
‘And I put her in the same category as Ivantsov—she’s just amazing!’
‘A dream come true’
‘I’ve always been a somewhat dinosaur obsessed,’ says Melissa.
Geologist and Dinosaur Dreaming team member Mike Cleeland first introduced her to hunting for dinosaurs in 2017, on a tour of Inverloch’s beaches.
‘I found a bone that day, my very first dinosaur bone,’ she says.
‘The second rock I grabbed, I saw this weird brown smudge and Mike said, “Yep, you got a bone” and my reaction was just, “Woah, that’s brilliant!”,’ she laughs.
It didn’t all go to plan, though.
‘There were a couple of years where my husband and I were back in Melbourne with some health issues.
‘And then I had to unfortunately stop work and found out that I actually had a disability.’
But a childhood passion became Melissa’s solace after she lost strength in her arms.
‘I was in such a bad way emotionally, I was quite depressed with the world, with myself.
‘All the hobbies I had, most of them I’ve had to stop doing.
‘I was thinking, “What can I do? Well, I’ve had some success finding dinosaur bones, I’ve got time, I live on the coast, I might as well make use of it”.
‘And that’s when everything kicked off.’
‘It was a natural diversification for me to evolve from a bit of a loss to try and remake myself and to be able to do something else which can contribute to society.’
In addition to her own discoveries, Melissa also takes children on dinosaur tours.
‘I say to them, everything that we do as the Dinosaur Dreaming team, it’s for everybody.
‘And that’s the thing, all the bones I find, all the footprints, it’s not actually for me; it’s for our future generations, it’s for the furthering of our knowledge of science—that’s what I really love about this.
‘I find these bones and I’m just like, that’s a creature that was alive once—it’s nuts, it really is nuts to think about that and to think about how old this stuff really is.’
The big one
The footprints on the Inverloch foreshore are thought to be about 125 million years old, when Australia was still attached to Antarctica as the last remnant of the supercontinent Gondwana.
At that time, the area would have been a broad floodplain—and it’s for that very reason that all these dinosaur footprints were preserved for so long.
‘When you are the first eyes to see something in 125 million years, I can’t really begin to describe how I feel, it’s a huge honour and a privilege,’ says Melissa.
One of Melissa’s favourites was a big find—thought to be the footprint of a large theropod, or carnivore, about five metres long.
‘It was right in the middle of the day, so the sun was beaming straight on it, and all I saw was these rough irregular patches on the rock,’ she recalls.
‘I knew straight up from the actual pattern of it that it was a footprint, it was unbelievable.
‘I’ve wanted to find great big teeth for a long time and that's evidence that they were here—a big Allosaurus possibly.’
‘We need to find the bones of whatever made that footprint, that would be the ultimate,’ she says with a smile.
Melissa’s enthusiasm has clearly rubbed off on the other members of the group too.
Dinosaur Dreaming dig coordinator Lesley Kool has been hunting for evidence of dinosaurs since 1984, when Thomas first founded the group.
‘I was hooked then and I’m still hooked now, and I think with Melissa on board she has really revitalised the whole dinosaur bone and footprint hunting down here, it’s just fantastic,’ says Lesley.
‘Some of the material she has found is just mind blowing, it really is, so I’m just really glad to be a part of that—she finds them, and I prepare them.
‘She spots the really tiny bones, the really small ones, and they're the ones that have the potential to be something really exciting.
‘Now that we've got a new generation on board, hopefully it will continue for a long time.’