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National Treasure Not Stock Food!

The Geoscience Society of New Zealand calls on the Government and Dunedin City Council to stop the proposal to mine away New Zealand’s most important terrestrial fossil site at Foulden Hills, near Middlemarch, Otago.

“New Zealand’s national identity is strongly bound to its unique plants and animals. We cannot stand by and see this fountain of paleontological knowledge about where we have come from destroyed; particularly not for so little transient local and national gain”, said Geoscience Society of New Zealand President Dr Jennifer Eccles.

The diatomite sediment that infilled this crater lake, 23 million years ago, contains the most extraordinary array of exquisitely preserved plant, fish, spider and insect fossils in New Zealand. These fossils are unique and record the previously unknown history and origins of a large portion of New Zealand’s present-day biota. They are all extinct species. Many are the ancestors of NZ’s current biota but others record groups of plants and animals that are no longer living here. To date, over 100 different species of plant fossils have been identified (mostly leaves, but also fruits, seeds and wood). The plants include extremely rare fossil orchids, mistletoes, fuchsias and a host of other taxa that link NZ’s biota to Australia, New Caledonia and South America. Forty fossil flowers have been found, many still containing pollen, representing 15 plant families. Fossil flowers with associated pollen are extraordinarily rare globally.

Amazingly preserved freshwater fish fossils include the oldest freshwater eel fossil in the Southern Hemisphere and the oldest galaxiid whitebait in the world. Insects are NZ’s largest group of terrestrial animals. More than 50% of NZ’s discovered fossil insects have been found in this one deposit and include over 200 different kinds from 21 families. Four fossil spiders have also been found. All these fossils come from just a small area near the top of the deposit. This unique site will hold hundreds more different kinds of fossils that will help paleontologists in future decades and centuries document and decipher the rich history of NZ’s biota. The rich fossil collections already found could form the basis of an important museum and information centre in Middlemarch.

“The diatomite at Foulden is an irreplaceable treasure box from which only a small proportion of its jewels have been found so far”, said Geoscience Society Geoheritage Convenor Dr Bruce Hayward.

“Foulden crater lake fossils are as important to our understanding of the origins of New Zealand's biota as the UNESCO Messel World Heritage Site in Germany is to understanding the history of Europe's biota”, said paleontologist Prof Daphne Lee. Government-funded scientific drilling has revealed the full 120 m thickness of the diatomite sediment fill of the crater. It is composed of thousands of 1 mm-thick layers, each deposited by annual algal (diatom) blooms. This core provides a unique and truly world-class record of annual climatic fluctuations spanning a 120,000-year period around 23 million years ago. Detailed international studies now and in the future will provide unprecedented detail of annual climatic factors such as rainfall and greenhouse gas variability that will lead to better understanding of the ancient El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and other climate cycles. To do this requires preservation of a complete sequence through the deposit in perpetuity so that future generations of scientists can use the inevitable new technologies to interrogate the sequence and obtain increasingly more detailed information about the fossils and the history of climate at that time. A deposit with this level of annual resolution is unknown in the Southern Hemisphere.

Recently released company documents say that the whole deposit will need to be mined to be economic and afterwards the hole will fill with water and prevent access to any scraps that may have been left behind . Dr Eccles says “we recognise that mining of this deposit would clearly provide access to much deeper levels and undoubtedly uncover many more fossil treasures, but it would be unconscionable for us to support the proposed quarrying away of virtually the entire deposit. This site is of international importance and it is beholden on us to protect it for future generations of scientists and the public.”


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