My Little Dino

By Leaellyn Rich

I always wanted my own little dinosaur. Then my parents found one for me – deep in an Australian mine!

When I was two, I had a book called My Little Dinosaur. It was about a boy who found a live dinosaur in a cave near his house. I started wanting a dinosaur too. My dad worked with dinosaurs at a museum … so I asked him to get me one.

“Christmas would be a good time I told him.”

Of course, Dad couldn’t really bring me a dinosaur. And as I grew up, I forgot about wanting one. I was too busy with school, sports, ballet classes and music lessons. But my dad remembered the dinosaur. And when I started fifth grade, something great happened.

Dinosaur bits and pieces

We live in Australia, where my parents work as palaeontologists (PAY-lee-un-TOL-uh-jists). That means they’re scientists who study life from long ago. I’ve gone on heaps of fossil digs with them, starting when I was 10 months old. In fact, I’d been working with them on a dinosaur dig that summer before I started fifth grade. But then school began, and I had to leave.

While I was at school, my dad called to say his volunteers had found a dinosaur skull. He wasn’t sure what kind of dinosaur it was. But he thought it might be one that had never been found before.

To prove it, he’d have to see more parts of the skeleton. But those parts were probably scattered around and would be hard to find.

Luckily, my parents and the volunteers kept finding more bits of the dinosaur skeleton. Finally they had enough pieces to be sure. It was a new kind of dinosaur and they named it after me.

Big eyes for long nights

The new dinosaur was called Leaellynasaura. It was little – about the size of a chicken. It had enormous eyes. And it used a bigger part of is brain for seeing than was normal.

My dad and mum think its big eyes and special brain may help prove that some dinosaurs were warm blooded (able to keep their bodies warm in cold temperatures). Here’s why: My dinosaur lived abut 100 million yeas ago. Scientists think that way back then, Australia was attached to Antarctica. So the place where my dino was found would have been much closer to the South Pole than it is now.

Leaellyn Rich with the fossil skull of Leaellynasaura at Dinosaur Cove Leaellyn Rich with the fossil skull of Leaellynasaura at Dinosaur Cove (Photo: © Peter Menzel)

In winter, it stays totally dark for three months of the year near the Pole. Big eyes are useful for seeing in the dark. So my dinosaur’s big eyes and special brain would have been really useful in the winter – when the temperature was probably below freezing.

Dad and Mum say that the eyes and brain seem to show that my dinosaur was active in the freezing winter. No cold-blooded animal living today could survive those temperatures. So my dinosaur was probably warm-blooded.

My dinosaur wasn’t easy to find. It was buried deep inside a cliff along the coast near Melbourne. The cliff is beside a bay-like area called a cove. We call the area Dinosaur Cove.

There, my parents have found a layer of rock that they thought might have dinosaur fossils in it. So our family and some volunteers started digging near the bottom of the cliff.

At first, my parents and the volunteers dug into the rocky wall of the cliff with picks and large hammers. What a joke – that hardly cracked the rocks at all!

Then they tried using jackhammers and other power tools on the hard rocks. That worked a little better, but not well enough. Finally, they found some people who knew how to use explosives. They blasted their way in!

The explosives blew a huge hole in a layer of rock right above the dinosaur layer. The next step was to clear out the loose rocks and rubble. Then some volunteers used the jackhammers to dig down to the fossils. It was like working in a mine!

I was too young to use the jackhammer. But I could help with the clearing out. And once the rocks were outside the mine, I got good at cracking them open to check for fossils. I also helped around the camp – cooking, cleaning up, and getting supplies.

We spent nine summers digging at Dinosaur Cove and we found many exciting fossils, including my dinosaur. I loved it there. The people were always really friendly. And there were plenty of cool animals to see – like colourful frogs and sometimes even fairy penguins.

I also liked helping out around the mine, though I didn’t go into it very often. I’ve always been a bit uneasy in closed-in spaces. I used to dare myself to run right to the back of the mine. Then I would feel like a big hero if I could make myself stay there for more than two minutes at a time.

Even getting to the mine was tricky. The only way was to climb down that steep, 90m cliff, holding onto a rope. Once you were at the bottom, you had to watch the tides. The sea is really rough there. During high tide, the water went into the mine. So when the tide started coming in, we had to get out of the way quickly – or get clobbered by a wave. I remember scrambling up the cliffs lots of times just ahead of the water.

What a rush

The work we did could be frustrating at times. I could sit for hours breaking up rocks without finding even a scrap of fossil bone. Other times I found only tiny, useless bone fragments.

But when I found a good fossil, I got a rush of excitement. It was as if I’d made some strange connection with a totally forgotten being – a being that had lived millions of years before I was born, when the world was much different.

That is the most wonderful feeling. I got it no matter what fossil I found. So you can just imagine how I felt when I first saw the fossils of my very own dinosaur! Thanks, Mum and Dad.

Leaellyn was asked by the editors of a children’s magazine Ranger Rick to write about the excavation at Dinosaur Cove from the unique perspective of a child who actually participated in it. My Little Dino was the result. Reproduced with permission.

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