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ACT’s newest emblem: Q&A with Dr. Rachel Przeslawski

Up until late last year, the ACT had just three emblems, a mammal emblem (Southern Brush-tailed Rock-wallaby), a bird emblem (Gang-gang cockatoo) and a floral emblem (Royal bluebell). But after a public vote there is now a fourth, Batocara mitchelli the capital’s new fossil emblem, a species of trilobite that became extinct around 250 million years ago.

Trilobites were a type of marine arthropod that were abundant in prehistoric times, but today they have no known direct descendants.

The voting period ran between the 7th of September until the 13th of October last year, with 1135 public participants casting their vote for their favourite fossil. Out of the five fossils to choose from, the victor was Batocara Mitchelli, garnering 30% of the total vote.

President of the Australian Marine Sciences Association Dr. Rachel Przeslaswki served as chair of the organising committee for the vote. I sat down with her to have a chat about what the process was to organise such an event.

Dr. Rachel Przeslawski (far left) | by Steven Petkovsi

Q: Why was there a need to have a fossil emblem?

A: Nobody needs to have a fossil emblem, the whole purpose of the voting and the competition was to engage the public in Canberra’s geological history. And I guess broader STEM issues to get people interested in science, our environment and natural history. That’s the whole point of the emblem. Now that we have done this it might spark some curiosity in people so they learn a little bit more about geological time. As a marine scientist, for me it was really cool to think about the fact that all five of our candidates were marine animals. That meant Canberra used to be underwater. We always make fun of ourselves because we are nowhere near the beach, but millions of years ago we were underwater.

ACT’s new fossil emblem – Batocara mitchelli | by Errol Fries

Q: Where was the fossil from? Was it from Woolshed Creek?

A: There were five candidates and one of them was the brachiopod, which is all over the Woolshed Creek fossil site. That’s a type of Duntroonensis, the species being named after the nearby Duntroon Military College. That was the one that the geologists really wanted to win because Woolshed Creek is a huge geological heritage site. We have now got it listed as a tourist site in Canberra. The geologists realised the importance of it, but I knew it was never going to win because it didn’t have a face! Who would want something without a face?

However, at Woolshed Creek the winner was there, it was just in bits and pieces. The trilobite that won, Batocara mitchelli, is not often found intact. It’s kind of hard to identify a trilobite if you don’t have the whole thing. It is all over Canberra including Woolshed Creek, but the type specimen and the one that kind of sparked people’s interest to become the winner was one of the few intact specimens of this particular trilobite found. They found it when they were drilling through the foundations of the old treasury building. In one of the cores they found this almost completely intact trilobite.

Image by Errol Fries

Q: What was the process for the voting?

A: We were really worried just opening it up to the public because we’d end up with, I don’t know, a T-Rex or something that wasn’t very representative of Canberra. So we had a phased approach, we started a selection committee ultimately made up of five paleontologists, geologists and science communicators. They went through a pretty robust process in the background trying to identify the five candidates. They wrote up a blurb as to why each one of those five candidates would be worthwhile. We had a short list when we went to the public, so no matter which one won it would still meet our aim of being geologically significant. So we had a selection process phase and then a public voting phase. The cool thing about the selection process phase was that we had a little profile about each one of the people on the committee. So the public could see the different types of people that get involved and interested in this as a career.

Q: A number of other states have fossil emblems, is there now a push to have more?

A: South Australia has one without a face which I thought was incredible! They had an Ediacaran fossil, it was because that was when the explosion of life happened. As far as I know there are a few other states that don’t have one yet. To be honest people love living things right? The animals, the flowers, the birds that sort of stuff. I think that people traditionally associate with an emblem but I like the idea of the fossil emblem because it puts everything in the context of time. We’re just a blip and these fossils make us realise how long the land that we live in has been around and how it has changed. I would hope there would be more of a push for other states and territories to get one. I grew up in America – every single one of our fifty states has a fossil. In my state Michigan, our state fossil doubles as our state rock, the Petoskey stone which is a fossilised coral. I was a bit amazed that Australia with only seven states and territories didn’t actually have that so for me it was really special getting that established in the ACT. 

Q: What is the importance of fossil emblems?

A: For me, fossil emblems are a way to inspire interest in science. I think that’s crucial. If it gets some little kid interested in thinking about time, how land has changed and how the environment could change in the future that’s exactly what we want. We want to spark that interest and that passion from an early age. Even among adults as well, it gives people time to think just about how things have changed and will continue to change.

Image by Dr. Rachel Przeslawski

Images from the collection of Geoscience Australia

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