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My blog is moving to my website:

As far as I can work out, my followers should have been transferred to the new one. I’m hoping that the new site will eventually allow some more ‘tailored’ posts. Those of you who are more interested in travel-related stuff, will be able to avoid the heavier science, and vice-versa. Any problems, just drop me a message.

Thanks for the support – hope to see you all …. on the other side….. (:

Podozamites fossil from New Zealand Jurasic
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Podozamites – a multi-veined conifer in New Zealand’s Jurassic

Most conifer leaves have just one vein, whether they be the needles of pines, or the much broader leaves of some tropical conifers. This limits their size and shape (they mostly stay small and can’t do fancy stuff like many flowering plant leaves). Just two kinds of conifer have several veins in their leaves – some of the ‘Monkey Puzzles’ or ‘Bunya Pines’ (Araucaria) and the kauris (Agathis). All of these are evergreen.

In the past, things were rather different. My Chinese and Russian colleagues have just put out a paper reviewing Podozamites – a sort of ‘catch-all’ term for fossil multi-veined conifers. We limited out study to what is now East Asia – it has a nice latitudinal spread of plant fossil localities going all the way from the Late Triassic to the Late Cretaceous.  Early in this time Podozamites was a very widespread in mid-latitudes, and at times it probably formed an almost mono-specific kind of swamp forest. It also seems to have been deciduous, rather like the Ginkgo, which in some respects, is probably the most similar thing around today.

Chinese Podozamites

A slab of Early Jurassic rock from China covered with leaves and shoots of Podozamites.

We documented how, through the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, Podozamites lost its dominance and often became just one of several conifers in a forest. It also retreated in to higher latitudes, towards the north before finally going extinct sometime in the Cretaceous. Over this period it had to deal with the appearance of something quite new – the flowering plants. Like Podozamites, many of these in East Asia were also deciduous and with relatively large leaves. They may have been the death-knell for Podozamites. We don’t know, but it’s curious that the plants with the leaves that may have been most able to hold their own against the ‘invasion’ of flowering plants, were the very ones to vanish. The East Asian Podozamites were not closely related to any conifer today. When they died out, it wasn’t just the end of a lineage, it was the end of a whole life-style.

New Zealand Podozamites

A Podozamites shoot from the New Zealand Jurassic.

New Zealand has Podozamites fossils from the Jurassic (see featured image) but these are quite unlike the typical East Asian Podozamites. The New Zealand ones are possibly the narrowest Podozamites of all, with just a few veins. And they were probably evergreen. They are more likely to be related to those multi-veined conifers that still live in the region (Araucaria and Agathis).

But why were there never (as far as we know) vast swamp forests dominated by deciduous Podozamites in New Zealand? Was our climate just not right? If so – what was our climate? And why are our Podozamites so narrow?


Podozamites shoot from the New Zealand Jurassic.

As they say in the trade – these are questions for future research….


This will take you to a link to pdf of our Podozamites paper:

POLE, M., WANG, Y., BUGDAEVA, E.V., DONG, C., TIAN, N., LI, L., ZHOU, N., In Press. The rise and demise of Podozamites in East Asia – an extinct conifer life style. Palaeogeography Palaeoclimatology Palaeoecology

Miocene leaf fossil from Blue Lake, St Bathans, New Zealand
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Blue Lake, St Bathans – the most biodiverse Miocene fossil plant locality

The biodiversity of Blue Lake, at St Bathans, New Zealand, is precisely zero. It is an artificial lake partly filling a hole blasted out in the search for gold in the 19th century. The hole is directly in front of one of St Bathan’s and New Zealand’s gems – the Vulcan Hotel. If you ran out the front door and forgot to stop at the cliff marking the edge of the old workings – you would land in one of the most biodiverse fossil plant sites anywhere on the planet.

Blue Lake, St Bathans, New Zealand

Blue Lake, St Bathans, New Zealand

The gold miners were sluicing quartz-rich gravel and sands. But in among those are thinner beds and lenses of mud. These are often full of plant fossils of Miocene age – say around 17-18 million years. Sometimes these are amazingly-preserved whole leaves – the featured image and one below show fossil leaves that have been floated out of the mudstone and then set in glycerine jelly between sheets of plastic. But often the fossils are just a hash of leaf fragments. This looks like a handful of compost at first, but it’s this hash, plus the extremely good preservation of that hash – that can make just a single handful of mud rich with fossils.

On the slope marking the edge of the Blue Lake digging and in front of the Vulcan Hotel there used to be a pine tree. It was my marker to locate a lens of mud remarkable by itself for its fossil plant content. In a few handfuls of mud from that lens were seven genera of conifers and at least 48 flowering plants. The conifers included some of our familiar New Zealand trees – like matai (Prumnopitys) and rimu (Dacrydium). But there were also surprises. There was Acmopyle – unique as a ‘hairy’-leaved conifer, and only growing in Fiji and New Caledonia now. Also Retrophyllum, a conifer with a distinctive paired arrangement of leaves along its shoot, but now found only in New Caledonia, Melanesia and South America.

Miocene leaf fossil from Blue Lake, St Bathans, New Zealand

Miocene leaf fossil from Blue Lake, St Bathans, New Zealand

And that little lens was just the start of it. Blue Lake has many such lenses, and over the hill is a ‘sister-lake’ – one of the local names being ‘Grey Lake’. It has a similar kind of geology. The sands and mud exposed in these lakes were deposited in an ancient river flowing along what geologist Barry Douglas (1986)  has called the ‘St Bathans PaleoValley’. It came from uplands in the west, to the coast somewhere to the east. In both Blue and Grey Lake muds I’ve now recorded a total of 13 conifers, 144 flowering-plant types and a further two cycad-like ones. To put this biodiversity in context, As a comparison, today there are around 215 species of tree in the entire New Zealand region (including the subtropical Kermadec Island; McGlone et al., 2010) and nine genera of conifers. So in an area of just a few hectares – there are more fossil conifer types than in all of New Zealand today. This is one of the most biodiverse, and perhaps the most, Miocene plant fossil localities anywhere.

What caused this high biodiversity? It was certainly warmer – the climate was warm temperate or even subtropical. Average temperatures would have been at least 6-7 degrees warmer than today. But perhaps more importantly, the cooler temperatures would have been much warmer. The harsh frosts and snow that St Bathans gets now, would have been entirely unknown. The kinds of rainforest plant fossils found at Blue Lake prove that rainfall too, would have been higher and more consistent, quite unlike the low and drought-ridden climate that the area has now. On top of that, Douglas considered that the ancient river was ‘braided’. This is a type of river that has many channels, and switches between  them from time to time. This process keeps vegetation in various stages of ‘succession’, allowing many species a chance to find their niche.

Vulcan Hotel, St Bathans, New Zealand

Vulcan Hotel, St Bathans, New Zealand in the snow. There would have been no snow, or even frosts, during the Miocene when biodiverse rainforest grew here.

The Miocene plant fossils of Blue and Grey Lakes are a treasure -trove and much remains yet to be understood. Many of the fragmentary plant fossils are still unidentified. They are clearly not plants living in New Zealand today – but where will similar plants turn-up? New Caledonia? Patagonia? Madagascar? And just what were the plant communities that lived in the St Bathans Paleovalley? How many new fossils wait to be found?

And that first lens of mud? The one beside the pine tree? Pine trees are an introduced, often invasive conifer in New Zealand. Their spread across parts of New Zealand is causing problems (they shade out smaller natives, acidify the soil and are a fire hazard) and so the Department of Conservation is doing their best to control the pines. That pine, one of the few trees in an otherwise naturally vegetation-free spot, was removed, and along with it, much of that biodiverse fossil lens. In fact, with the pine tree gone and the disturbance that created, I’ve had trouble re-locating it.

Something very ironic there!


Links will take you to a site to download pdfs of the papers.

Douglas, B. J. 1986. Lignite resources of Central Otago. New Zealand Energy Research and Development Committee Publication P104: Volume one, Volume 2.

Pocknall, D.T., 1982. Pollen and spores from Blue Lake, St Bathans (H41) and Harliwichs Lignite Pit, Roxburgh (G43), Central Otago, New Zealand. Palynology Section, NZGS, Lower Hutt.

Pole, M.S., 1992. Early Miocene flora of the Manuherikia Group, New Zealand. 2. Conifers. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 22, 287-302.

Pole, M.S., 1997. Miocene conifers from the Manuherikia Group, New Zealand. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 27, 355-370.

McGlone, M. S., S. J. Richardson, et al. 2010. Comparative biogeography of New Zealand trees: species richness, height, leaf traits and range sizes. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 34: 1-15.

Pole, M., 2007. Conifer and cycad distribution in the Miocene of southern New Zealand. Australian Journal of Botany 55, 143-164.

Pole, M., 2008. Dispersed leaf cuticle from the Early Miocene of southern New Zealand. Palaeontologia Electronica 11 (3) 15A:, 1-117.

Pole, M., 2014. The Miocene climate in New Zealand: Estimates from paleobotanical data. Palaeontologia Electronica 17, 1-79,


Fossil pea pod (legume) from the Miocene of New Zealand
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Giant Pea Pod fossils in New Zealand’s Miocene

Pea pod fossils in New Zealand were first found by Aline Holden, a pioneer of New Zealand plant fossil research. She found the first ones at Bannockburn in 1981, while working on her PhD, and then found more in the Nevis Valley.

In 1987, my PhD professor, J.D. Campbell and his wife, Anne, dropped in unexpectedly in Alexandra (my home). They were on their way to the Nevis Valley and wanted to know if I would come too. The Nevis Valley has a well-known oil shale deposit, and this includes fossil leaves and scattered fish bones of Miocene age (c. 18-17 million years). Once in the area, ‘JDC’ focussed on shale near the track, while I set off to explore up a shrubby side valley. I was on the way back when I spotted a likely outcrop up on the valley side. It was solid gold – to a fossil plant person that it is. Technically it was mudstone, but stuffed full of not only fossil leaves, but pea pods as well. I worked out as large a chunk as I could, strapped it to my pack frame, and then staggered back to the car with it.

Back in the lab, chipping away the overlying mudstone, revealed fossil pods (legumes) up to 130 mm long, and with 14 peas (seeds).

Fossil pea pod (legume) from the Miocene of Nevis Valley, New Zealand

Fossil pea pod (legume) from the Miocene of Nevis Valley, New Zealand (length c. 130 mm)

Today New Zealand has just four groups of peas (the legume family). There’s kowhai (Sophora), Kakabeak (Clianthus), the scree pea (Montigena) and the many brooms (Carmichaelia). All of these are part of the legume family that have classic ‘pea flowers’. One of the technical terms for this group is (or was) the Papilionoideae (think of the French word for butterfly – ‘papillion’).

But traditionally, there are also two other large groups of legumes. One is the Caesalpinioideae – with quite showy flowers (think Bauhinia), then the Mimosoideae. These have very reduced flowers, looking a bit like pom-poms (think of the wattles/Acacia).

Fossil pea pod (legume) from the Miocene of Bannockburn, New Zealand

Fossil pea pod (legume) from the Miocene of Bannockburn, New Zealand

The lucky find in the Nevis that day was not just the large fossil pea pods, some with the seeds (peas) in them, but some scattered leaves that were surely produced by the same plant. Based on the combination of evidence, the legume expert Dr Les Pedley, suggested most likely identification of the fossils was Serianthes. This plant is now found in New Caledonia, Fiji, and French Polynesia.

Fossil legume leaflet from the Miocene of Bannockburn, New Zealand

Fossil legume leaflet from the Miocene of Bannockburn, New Zealand

Serianthes is one of the Mimosoideae group. The Mimosoideae was already known in New Zealand based on fossil pollen, although in those cases, Acacia was considered the more likely parent plant (Pocknall and Mildenahll 1984; Mildenhall and Pocknall 1989).

Together, the pods, leaves and pollen make a nice addition to what used to grow in New Zealand. But what do these fossil mean? Based on where Serianthes grows today, the average annual temperature may have been more than 20 C. That’s about twice what it is now. Also a suspicion that the vegetation it was growing in was relatively dry.

I seem to spend half my life staggering kilometres with a pile of rock, either on my back or worse, carrying it in my arms. But in this case, it was well worth it.


Links will take you to my site where you can download a pdf.

Mildenhall, D.C., Pocknall, D.T., 1989. Miocene-Pleistocene spores and pollen from Central Otago, South Island, New Zealand. New Zealand Geological Survey Palaeontological Bulletin 59, 1-128.

Pocknall, D.T., Mildenhall, D.C., 1984. Late Oligocene -Early Miocene spores and pollen from Southland, New Zealand. New Zealand Geological Survey Paleontological Bulletin 51, 1-66.

Pole, M.S., 1992. Fossils of Leguminosae from the Miocene Manuherikia Group of New Zealand, in: Herendeen, P.S., Dilcher, D.L. (Eds.), Advances in Legume Systematics: Part 4. The Fossil Record. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, pp. 251-258.

Pole, M.S., Holden, A.M., Campbell, J.D., 1989. Fossil legumes from the Manuherikia Group (Miocene), Central Otago, New Zealand. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 19, 225-228.

Araucaria fossil shoot from Miocene of New Zealand.
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Hoop Pine fossils – dry rainforest in New Zealand’s Miocene

In a little patch of shale, continually flaking onto the road near Bannockburn (central South Island, New Zealand), there are the unmistakable fossils like Australian ‘hoop pine’ shoots. Hoop pines are members of the tree family which includes ‘monkey puzzles’, ‘bunyas’ and the ‘Norfolk Island Pines’. The Latin name is Araucaria – New Zealand has none of these in its native flora today, but it does have the kauri (it’s another genus, Agathis, but in the same family).

A long fossil Araucaria shoot from the Miocene of Bannockburn, New Zealand. Shoot is c. 6 mm wide.

A long fossil Araucaria shoot from the Miocene of Bannockburn, New Zealand. Shoot is c. 6 mm wide.

Around 17 million years ago (Miocene period) the shale would have been accumulating in a standing body of water, probably a flood-basin lake. Plant fossils would have been washed into it after they blew off a tree into a river, which then flowed into the body of water. The pine shoots are made of long, overlapping scale-like leaves, that together make a tail-like structure, maybe 4-6 mm in diameter. Along with the shoots there are also occasional  seed cone-scales and rare pollen cones. The cone-scales have delicate wings, just like modern hoop-pines, but these have often been lost in the fossil.  These additional plant fossils all help to show that the original tree was something much closer to the Australian ‘hoop pines’, the Norfolk Island pine’ and some New Caledonian species of Araucaria, than to other species in the family.

A fragment of a branch of fossil Araucaria shoots from the Miocene of Bannockburn, New Zealand

A fragment of a branch of fossil Araucaria shoots from the Miocene of Bannockburn, New Zealand

Back in the days of the dinosaurs (Cretaceous, c. 75 million years ago) the hoop pine family was common in New Zealand. They were an important component of the wet coal-swamps. But at the same time the dinosaurs vanished, so did those trees. From that time on, fossils of Araucaria are rare in New Zealand, with the layer of shale near Bannockburn an exception.

A fossil Araucaria seed-cone scale from the Miocene of Bannockburn, New Zealand (c. 20 mm high)

A fossil Araucaria seed-cone scale from the Miocene of Bannockburn, New Zealand (c. 20 mm high)

What do these fossils mean? Probably warmer times than today, but perhaps more intriguingly, the Australian hoop pine is a key plant in what are called ‘dry rainforests’. This term sounds a bit contradictory, but it refers to forest where rainfall is relatively low, but where fire does not normally occur. Unlike wetter, more normal rainforests, the low rainfall helps keep the forest canopy more open. Without so much shade, the greater amount of light reaching the forest floor is probably a reason why the hoop pines live in them. It’s certainly a very different habitat than the coal swamps where their relatives lived in along side dinosaurs.

The Bannockburn fossil ‘hoop pines’ (using the term broadly to refer to a group pf species) are evidence of forest (the area was virtually treeless when Europeans arrived in the 19th century),  warmer conditions than in southern New Zealand today (and more like southeastern Queensland), but with some sort of degree of ‘dryness’ – probably seasonally low rainfall.

Small-stuff, but it’s bits of evidence like this that climatologists can use to figure out exactly how our climate system changes.



Links will take you to my page where you can download a pdf.

Pole, M.S., 1992. Early Miocene flora of the Manuherikia Group, New Zealand. 2. Conifers. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 22, 287-302. (describes the Araucaria shoot, seed-cone and pollen cone fossils from Bannockburn)

Pole, M.S., 1993. Early Miocene flora of the Manuherikia Group, New Zealand. 10. Paleoecology and stratigraphy. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 23, 393-426. (proposes the dry rainforest interpretation for the shale at Bannockburn)

Pole, M., 2008. The record of Araucariaceae macrofossils in New Zealand. Alcheringa 32, 405–426. (describes cuticle from the Araucaria fossils at Bannockburn)

Palaeontologia Electronica 17, Issue2;27A; 79p; (detailed evaluation of New Zealand’s climate at the time of the Bannockburn shale and its Araucaria fossils)


Webb, L.J., 1959. A physiognomic classification of Australian rainforests. Journal of Ecology 47, 551-570. (defines ‘dry rainforest’ in Australia and Araucaria as one of their keys)


Fire in Australian savanna
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Tim Flannery and Megafaunal Extinction Shuffle-puck

Are Australian lives and property being burnt as a result of something that happened tends of thousands of years ago?

In 1994 an influential book, ‘The Future Eaters’, was published by the Australian paleontologist Tim Flannery. One of the goals of the book was to explain why an event several thousand years ago (the extinction of the Australian megafauna) has consequences today (the need for control-burning vegetation to avoid catastrophic fires). This could be called ‘Flannerys Hypothesis’.

In more detail, it argues that humans arrived in Australia, rapidly killed of the ‘megafauna’ (a range of animals and birds much larger than Australia’s existing fauna). With the megafauna gone, there was a build up of flammable vegetation that would otherwise have been grazed or browsed. This meant that fires became more widespread and more intense. In a word – more ‘destructive’. Recognising this as a problem, Aborigines began to carefully ‘fire-stick’ farm. This meant deliberately setting fires at the right time of year and at the right frequency, so that vegetation did not build up to the point that a fire would be a bad one, but at the same time, maintaining optimal biodiversity.


A life-size reconstructed Megalania lizard (one of the Australian megafauna) at the Highlands Motorsport Park, Cromwell, New Zealand

According to ‘Flannerys Hypothesis’, this all went well for thousands of years until Europeans arrived and said “tut-tut, mustn’t play with fire”. The apparent result was exactly what the Aborigines had been trying to prevent – an outbreak of severe fires and a wave of small-mammal extinctions.

The Future Eaters book was a public sensation, but it caused a furore among some academics. I suspect part of this was the expected fall-out from trying to do ‘science communication’. The success of the book was because it got the public thinking, which wouldn’t have been possible had it been full of data. But the rest of the reaction was normal science. In science, if you stick your head above the parapet too high, expect to get it shot at. And especially in Australasia where we have our ‘tall poppy syndrome’.

I really enjoyed teaching the subject – it was science in action. My lectures had to be constantly updated (something that should always be done in any case), but new ones needed to be added as well. A killer new paper would be published – Score: Flannery 1: Flannery’s Foes 2. A few months later Team Flannery would respond with another paper -Score: Flannery 3: Flannery’s Foes 2. It was a kind of academic shufflepuck.

For a lecturer, the beauty of The Future Eaters is as stepping point into a whole range of features that make the Australian environment interesting – fire, poor soils, ancient Aboriginal presence, and so-on. It’s also that Flannery’s Hypothesis is modular. It chains other hypotheses and observations together into a coherent sequence. For instance, it included Martins ‘Overkill’ or ‘Blitzkrieg’ Hypothesis (that humans rapidly killed off large animals wherever they migrated to), and Jones’ ‘Fire-Stick Farming’ Hypothesis (Aborigines used fire rather than the plough). This forces students to identify just what is taking any flak. Is it one of these modules that is being criticised, and would knocking it out be fatal to the entire edifice?

It’s now been over (shudder) twenty years since the Future Eaters was published, and (shudder again) nearly ten years since I last lectured it. There have always been a couple of major arguing points. Having humans and megafauna in Australia at the same time, is of course, critical. The other has been to rule out that climate, not humans, was responsible for the extinction.

At the last time I ‘tuned in’, a very detailed study on what some flightless Australian birds had been eating had just come out (Miller et al., 2005). This showed there had been an abrupt change in emu diet about 45,000 years ago, coinciding with both the extinction of Genyornis (a giant bird considered a member of the megafauna) and the arrival of humans. This was said to have happened at a time of no significant climate change. Game over? Well, no. Also in that year a paper came out (Price and Sobbe, 2005) with evidence for climatically-driven vegetation change in the about 45,000 years ago in at least part of Queensland. Game continued.

But ten years down the track? Surely that’s been time enough to see if Flannery’s Hypothesis is still in-play?

Currently, the oldest reasonably firm date for humans in Australia is the Malakunanja II rock shelter in Arnhem Land. This has a date of about 55,000 years (Clarkson et al., 2015). Not only that, but at one of the most controversial sites – Cuddie Springs, there is good evidence of megafaunal/human coexistence until around 30,000 years ago (Trueman et al., 2005; Field, 2006). Even ignoring that, there is now talk of the “window of continent-wide coexistence” between 55,600 and 42,100 years ago. That’s 13 thousand years of human-megafaual overlap. This would knock out Flannery’s ‘blitzkrieg extinction’ module, but temporal overlap is definitely established.

One focus of recent work continues to be on the climate. According to some, unprecedented drought may have been sufficient to exterminate the megafauna. Last year, two more key papers appeared. One gave compelling geological evidence for “catastrophic” drying in central Australia around 48,000 years ago (Cohen et al. 2015). Huge lakes that had existed all over the region dried up.

Sounds definitely like climate was the culprit? Nope. Immediately after that, another paper (Saltré et al., 2015) used mathematical techniques to rigorously date the megafaunal extinction(s), and then looked at these in the context of a range climate variables. Their conclusion: “no evidence of a correlation between the timing of extinction events and variation in climate based on any of the measures of climate” that they used. The hard geological evidence for widespread, catastrophic drying was dismissed as “potentially describ[ing] local climatic conditions rather than continent-wide trends”.

Hmmm. Those “continent-wide” climate trends with no apparent climate issues were based on Antarctic ice-cores and global climate models. I see a whole lot hard play ahead yet.

Verdict on Flannery’s Hypothesis” The puck is still in play, and we still have a lot to learn about what things make Australia tick – and how to live with them.

But here’s my take. Perhaps there is also something to be gained to view from another perspective? A bit like seeing the duck instead of the rabbit, or (so I’ve read), where some cultures see, instead of the stars, the blackness between them. Rather than focusing on the extinctions, how about the no-extinctions? This means we can realise that in Australia, for the 42,000 thousand years until 1788 (when Europeans arrived), Nothing Happened.

Now that’s Sustainability.


Clarkson, C., Smith, M., Marwick, B., Fullagar, R., Wallis, L.A., Faulkner, P., Manne, T., Hayes, E., Roberts, R.G., Jacobs, Z., Carah, X., Lowe, K.M., Matthews, J., Florin, S.A., 2015. The archaeology, chronology and stratigraphy of Madjedbebe (Malakunanja II): A site in northern Australia with early occupation. Journal of Human Evolution 83, 46–64.

Cohen, T.J., Jansen, J.D., Gliganic, L.A., Larsen, J.R., Nanson, G.C., May, J.-H., Jones, B.G., Price, D.M., 2015. Hydrological transformation coincided with megafaunal extinction in central Australia. Geology 43, 195–198.

Field, J.H., 2006. Trampling through the Pleistocene. Does taphonomy matter at Cuddie Springs? Australian Archaeology 63, 9-20.

Flannery, T.F., 1994. The Future Eaters. Reed Books, Melbourne.

Miller, G., Fogel, M.L. Magee, J.W. Gagan, M. Clarke, S. Johnson, B.J. 2005. Ecosystem collapse in Pleistocene Australia and a human role in megafaunal extinction. Science309, 207-209.

Price, G.J.S., Sobbe, I.H. 2005. Pleistocene palaeoecology and environmental change on the Darling Downs, southeastern

Queensland, Australia. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum 51, 171–201.

Saltré, F., Rodríguez-Rey, M., Brook, B.W., Johnson, C.N., Turney, C.S.M., Alroy, J., Cooper, A., Beeton, N., Bird, M.I., Fordham, D.A., Gillespie, R., Herrando-Pérez, S., Jacobs, Z., Miller, G.H., Nogués-Bravo, D., Prideaux, G.J., Roberts, R.G., & Bradshaw, C.J.A., (2016). Climate change not to blame for late Quaternary megafauna extinctions in Australia. Nature Communications, 7:10511.

Trueman, C.N.G., Field, J.H., J., D., Charles, B., Wroe, S., 2005. Prolonged co-existence of humans and megafauna in Pleistocene Australia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 102, 8381-8385.



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Cheap Eats Nanjing 14 – All You Can Eat – and Drink!

Not really one of the cheapest – by local standards, but hear me out…..

This place is called Jinfushan, it’s an all you can eat buffet for 60 RMB (US$ 9.20). There’s fruits, fresh fruit juice, vegetables, fries, crabs, salads, dumplings, desserts, ice cream. But get this – it’s also all can drink – as in beer or Chinese wine/spirits! Can you imagine this working in a western country?!!!

Offering DSC_9659

Offering DSC_9672

Fruit DSC_9666

Dumplings DSC_9673
Crabs DSC_9665

I went there during the week, invited by a Chinese Prof. Apparently it’s packed in the weekends. The group sitting at the next table gave us glasses of French wine – that they had brought with them. Then left us the bottle. After we finished eating, the staff brought us both a coffee, just as a nice bit of extra service.


All you want beer (top) and all you want Chinese wine/spirits (below)!

Fridge DSC_9671

All you want cold beer as well….

It’s on Zhongshan North Road, two bus stops north of the Drum Tower square/roundabout (near Gulou Metro) and at the intersection with Shanxi Road (SW corner). Go in the building AOX Life, and take the elevator to the top floor. It’s in the far corner of that floor.

Outside Street

Look for this building (opposite side of Zhongshan Rd if you are heading north)


On the top floor, find this entrance.

Street Map Name DSC_9686

Curio Bay Jurassic fossil forest in New Zealand
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New Zealand: The Jurassic fossil forest at Curio Bay

If you make your way down to almost the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island, you can walk among the stumps of a petrified Jurassic forest (that’s about 170 million years old). It’s a gem of New Zealand’s fossil plant history, and because of its complete preservation -pine tree stumps and tree-fern stumps, it’s practically unique.

Get to Curio Bay at low tide because the forest is right at sea -level. At high tide or stormy weather the waves slosh around the forest and it’s this wave activity that has uncovered the fossil forest. There is a look-out above the forest and at first you may have to get your eye in to what is below you. You’ll see a rocky shore platform, with pools of water everywhere. But poking up above the water are lots of mounds – these mark the positions of fossil tree stumps. Look more closely and you will see the long lines of fallen tree trunks in between the stumps.

Fossil tree stumps and fallen logs are scattered over the shore platform at Curio Bay fossil forest in New Zealand

Fossil tree stumps and fallen logs are scattered over the shore platform at Curio Bay fossil forest in New Zealand

When you get down to the forest, you can see that dark sandstone of the projections surrounds pale, yellowish material – this is the actual petrified wood, and you see the bark as well. On the better specimens you will be able to make out all the growth rings, exactly the same as if someone had cut down a living tree. Petrified wood is very hard, and some of that petrifaction has seeped in to the surrounding sands – which is why the mounds with their stumps resist the waves.


A fossil tree stump at the Curio Bay fossil forest in New Zealand. The wood is the yellowish material – and is surrounded by the flaky bark.

How did the forest get petrified? It was covered by a flood of loose volcanic material – perhaps this washed off the side of a distant volcano some days after it erupted, rushed towards the sea in a raging torrent of a river, and then spread out to overwhelm the trees. The fresh volcanic material would have contained lots of silica (the material that makes quartz, or glass) and this is surprisingly soluble in ground water. Liquid full of dissolved silica would have permeated the buried wood, then solidified within the wood cells. Some time later, the wood itself would have decayed away, and silica would have solidified in those spaces. The end result is a replacement of the wood, often right down to cell-level detail.


A small fossil tree trunk being slowly uncovered by the sea at the Curio Bay fossil forest in New Zealand.

My interest in Curio Bay goes back to high school days, when, after first seeing it, I wondered if I could study it in the same way botanists look at living forests – by mapping the position and size of each trunk. This led, over several visits and a few years, to doing just that. First attempts just triangulated with a tape measure, then I tried a flexible canvas square (sewn together by my Mum), but when that kept snagging on the fossil tree stumps, I tried a semi-rigid square of bamboo.

I eventually mapped 118 trees that had a diameter over 100 mm in an area just over 2100 m2, as well as numerous smaller ones. Most stumps are less than about 200 mm in diameter, but there are a few that get up to about 640 mm. This is not very big as forests go. In fact the oldest trees, based on the fossil growth rings, may only have been some 50-90 years old when they died. These ones were probably about 30 m high, emergent pines over a low, 10 m canopy of younger trees. The Curio Bay forest, it seems, was ‘cut down’ by the flood in its youth.

A large fossil tree trunk (foreground) in the Jurassic fossil forest at Curio Bay, New Zealand.

A large fossil tree trunk (foreground) in the Jurassic fossil forest at Curio Bay, New Zealand.

The tide goes out at Curio Bay to expose the fossil stumps and fallen logs of New Zealand's Jurassic fossil forest.

The tide goes out at Curio Bay to expose the fossil stumps and fallen logs of New Zealand’s Jurassic fossil forest.

But it gets better still. If you spend some time, you will find the fossil trunks of tree ferns. You can spot them by the surrounding mass of roots. There are also about half a dozen small, but very peculiar stumps. Instead of a trunk containing one set of concentric growth rings, these have several. The Curio Bay fossil forest is the only place in the world where these now extinct plants can be seen in growth position. Cycad-like plants were also around, but no stumps have been found at Curio Bay.

One of the very peculiar tree stumps at the Jurassic fossil forest at Curio Bay, New Zealand. Instead of the usual single set of concentric growth rings, this has several small ones, all enclosed by the same outer bark.

One of the very peculiar tree stumps at the Jurassic fossil forest at Curio Bay, New Zealand. Instead of the usual single set of concentric growth rings, this has several small ones, all enclosed by the same outer bark.

Did dinosaurs walk around this forest? You bet. No remains have been found here, not even footprints (yet!) – but dinosaurs were in New Zealand at the time. It’s certain that they would have been here.

It may seem weirdly coincidental that this forest ended up right at sea-level so it could be (and still is) gradually uncovered by wave action. To some degree it is, but the Curio Bay petrified forest is the lowest of ten successive forests, that can be seen in the cliffs, each buried by a flood. There are actually two very closely spaced forest levels on the shore platform, and there will be more below sea level. So no matter what level the sea was at – the waves would start to uncover one of those forests.

Had enough of fossil trees? To see a real forest with pines and tree ferns – just take the forest path opposite the car park. The big difference between this forest and the fossil forest are the broad-leaved plants. These all have flowers, and there were none of those in the Jurassic.

Oh, if you want to see the forest, best don’t go towards the end of the day during summer. That’s the time to move off the forest and leave it to the Yellow-Eyed penguins. In late afternoon they start popping out of the sea and heading across the fossil forest to their nests.

Like penguins? Check out these crochet penguins that are going to Antarctica. Each one of them represents a woman scientist.


*Clicking on these links will take you to my site, where you can download a pdf of the paper.

Pole, M.S., 2001. Repeated flood events and fossil forests at Curio Bay (Middle Jurassic), New Zealand. Sedimentary Geology 144, 223-242.

Pole, M.S., 1998. Structure of a near-polar latitude forest from the New Zealand Jurassic. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 147, 121-139.

Pole, M., 2004. Early-Middle Jurassic stratigraphy of the Fortrose-Chaslands region, southernmost South Island, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Geology & Geophysics 47, 129-139.

Pole, M., 2009. Vegetation and climate of the New Zealand Jurassic. GFF 131, 105 – 111.

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The Honey Trees of Kalimantan

I was sitting in a ger in Mongolia when I put up my hand to go to Indonesia. My ulterior motive was to get a chance to get into the Indonesian rainforests. Back in 1988 I had read Eric Hansen’s book “Stranger in the forest: on foot across Borneo”. I was impressed. The guy spent weeks under a forest canopy–walking across Borneo, and back again. It was wild place in those days.
When I did get to Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo) twenty years later, I found it was pretty much all over. I was there a month before I even saw a patch of intact forest– and that was far up in the high country near the Sarawak border. And even there it was surrounded by old logging coups. But on my last stint I kept seeing some trees, obviously from the original forest, towering up above the shrubby regrowth, rubber and banana trees that come after logging. They had a regular series of bumps up their trunks, and had obviously been avoided by the loggers.

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A relict honey tree in Kalimantan, towering above regrowth after the surrounding rainforest has been logged. Inset shows detail of the trunk, with its row of spikes to allow people to climb up to the bee hives.

One day, while I was plodding up a forested stream with my guys and some of the locals, the story came out. It was steamy-hot, and walking up the streams was both the easiest way to get through the jungle, and the coolest. We came across one of these giant trees which had fallen right across the stream (see the featured image). There was a lot of sniggering about the shape of these bumps – and then my Dayak guides explained to me that this was a ‘honey tree’. The bumps were formed by outgrowths of the honey tree around pegs of ‘ironwood’, which had long-ago been driven into the honey tree–to allow people to climb up into the canopy, and get honey from bees nests. These trees were favoured places for bees to make hives.

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The bumps on a fallen honey tree.

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The original iron wood spike (left) emerges from its covering of honey tree, to start a new life as a chick-magnet.

But that wasn’t all. The fallen tree was beside some rock I had to look at–and while I was doing that, I saw my guides using their parangs (machetes) to hack off some of the lumps. When I asked what they were doing, something else finally came out– the old pieces of iron wood, extracted from their overgrowth of honey tree, and perhaps 300 years old, were now charms – to pick up
chicks! Something about the shape of the lumps links them to females – and sympathetic magic comes into play. And furthermore, I was told – they worked “just as well on ex-pat girls as Dayaks”!

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A row of spikes on a still-standing honey tree.

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Spikes make their way up into a honey tree.

Unfortunately these trees are both botanical and cultural relicts. They were left by the loggers. My guess is the local people said ‘enough is enough’. Log what you want – but don’t touch our honey trees. But after all that, no-one climbs the honey trees any more. You certainly can’t buy local honey tree honey on the village markets. There are now easier ways to get honey. I was later taken to a still-standing honey tree which was visited by two men in 1978. One climbed, slipped, and fell all the way out of the canopy, dying on the buttress at the base. His mate is still in the local village.

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The buttress on which one of the last Kalimantan honey tree climbers met his death on, in 1978.

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Turkey/Armenia: Ani – capital on the wrong side of a border

I’ve seen two cities that look like they were comprehensively destroyed. I don’t mean just ruins,  but places where someone seems to have made a comprehensive, and successful attempt to wipe the place out. Warsaw may come to mind – it was practically obliterated in the Second World War, but then it was rebuilt. In Ani, a one-time capital of Armenia, and now in Turkey and one of the places I am thinking of – whatever happened, no one came back.

It was in 2007 and I was in the far east of Turkey. I fell-in with a group of Turkish architecture students who asked me if I’d like to come to Ani with them. I’d never heard of the place, and as it turns out, until that year, it was in a military zone, and off-limits.

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Ani is located on bare plateau of steppe – hardly a tree in sight. What is left over an area about 1.5 x 2.0 km are a few larger ruins of building. These are well-spaced, but there are signs in brick and road, that they were once part of a large city. Indeed, in had a population of around 100,000. It all sits on the west side of a spectacular gorge containing the Akhurian River, which eventually  flows into the Caspian Sea. On the other side of that – it’s Armenia. Far in the distance (see featured image), you can see Armenia’s Mount Aragats (Note: it’s not the more famous Mount Ararat, which is in Turkey).

The ruins of Ani.

The ruins of Ani.

Ruined and unprotected frescoes, at Ani.

Ruined and unprotected frescoes, at Ani.

A derelict security fence and watch-towers on the Turkish side were evidence that this was a hostile border in the recent past – but there were no guards, so presumably it was not so now. Around the ruins there were a few explanation signs, certainly better than nothing, but after a few hours I came away not understanding what had happened.

Now that Ani is a little more on the tourist circuit, there is some more information out-there (I’ve put some links at the bottom). The answer is ‘it’s complicated’ – and this might be expected, given where it is. Ani was in one of those places doomed to be a ‘buffer state’. That is, a place between two larger states, just large enough to keep the big ones from each other’s throats. In the early 11th century, the buffer state, with Ani as its capital was Bagratid Armenia.  The big-boys on either side were Christian Byzantium and the Muslim Arab world. Most of Ani’s large ruins date from this time. The power-balance worked until AD 1045, when it became part of the Byzantine Empire, but then shortly later (AD 1064) it fell to Byzantium’s successors – the Seljuk Turks.

The ruins of Ani above the Akhurian River. The old Turkish border-fence is visible. That's Armenia on the other side.

The ruins of Ani above the Akhurian River. The old Turkish border-fence is visible. That’s Armenia on the other side.

The Mongols came in the 12th century and an earthquake in AD 1319. So the main destruction is a likely from those dates – and mix of human and natural. But the border was to shift some more, and likely involved more destruction. By the late 19th century the big-boys were Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Russia invaded Ani in 1877-1878, what I take to be bullet holes on some of the ruins may date from then.  But after World War One Russia handed it back and withdrew  to the other side of the gorge.

Mike Pole above the Akhurian River, at Ani, Turkey.

Mike Pole above the Akhurian River, at Ani, Turkey.

What I take to be bullet holes on the ruins of Ani, Turkey.

What I take to be bullet holes on the ruins of Ani, Turkey.

From then until 2007 it seems that those responsible for the site couldn’t have cared less (at best). Frescoes that are a thousand years old are open to the elements and the vandals. A few more storms and another big shake will put-paid to the ruins that are left. There have been some rescue attempts since then. But what at one stage might have rivaled Istanbul as a tourist-attraction, now sits forlorn, on the other side of the border from what little remains of Armenia.

The other destroyed city I saw? A Russian military city in Mongolia. But that’s another story…

Links to information about Ani

Turkey Turns Medieval Armenian Capital Into A Tourist Attraction

On a Hotly Contested Border, a Ruin Gets Its Due : EthnoTraveler Magazine

Ani – Ghost City of 1001 Churches

Ani ruins reveal hidden secrets from below

Ani, the lost capital of the Armenians and the road to Tbilisi

The Ancient Ghost City of Ani — In Focus — The Atlantic