Victoria: Last Frontier in the Quest for Whale Origins

Speaker: Dr Erich Fitzgerald (Museum Victoria) will present the A W Howitt Lecture

A Joint Lecture with the Geological Society of Australia (Vic)

Stunning fossil discoveries over the last 20 years have made whales poster children of evolution.  Key questions still remain in the quest to unravel the history of these most unlikely of mammals.  New data are needed from unexplored areas on the map.  Of these ‘last frontiers’, Australia presents the greatest potential.  Yet for 175 years, knowledge of our continent’s fossil mammals has halted at the edge of the sea—until now.

Spearheaded by pioneering discoveries in Victoria, we are beginning to uncover the story of whale evolution in Australian seas, as well as the bizarre marine animals that shared their world.  Theirs is an extraordinary tale of shifting fortunes of dwarf whales, shark-toothed dolphins, killer sperm whales, dugongs in Port Phillip and giant penguins, against the backdrop of tectonic shifts, reorganization of the oceans and climatic drivers.  These insights from the past reveal that the diversity and ecology of present-day marine animals are surprisingly recent phenomena that did not evolve synchronously.  Only by heeding this perspective from palaeontology can we begin to comprehend “What is natural?”