Australia's fossil heritage: a catalogue of important australian fossil sites, edited by The Australian Heritage Council. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Victoria, 2012. No. of pages: xi+188. Price: $AU59.95. ISBN 978-0-64310-177-7 (paperback).


Australia's Fossil Heritage is a beautifully produced lexicon of the most scientifically important fossiliferous localities on that great southern continent. As such, it forms part of a lineage of similar guides that stretches back to the Directory of British Fossiliferous Localities (Arkell et al. 1954) and before. Unlike that earlier volume, written for collectors (it was a ready source of data on sites for my PhD fieldwork in the early 1980s), Australia's Fossil Heritage carries the alternate message of look, don't touch.

This book is beautifully printed on high-quality paper. Chapters are divided between the seven Australian states; most consider about 10 sites. Illustrations are reproduced mainly at full page width; artistic representations of some sites restored to ‘life’ are breathtaking and extend over two pages. If I have one complaint with the illustrations, then it is an important one; the captions are only minimally informative. Most cry out for more data. The cover is also highly decorative, with a progression of animal life from stromatolites and Dickinsonia to the Pleistocene megafauna, but why is a Jurassic crinoid shown in the Early Palaeozoic?

The main problem of Australia's Fossil Heritage is that the editing has been weak. A book of this sort needs a consistent style that is informative and readable. Instead, styles vary between chapters (=authors), although they are all squeezed into the same structure. This difference in styles is also apparent in the illustrations, too. In the chapter on Tasmania, no fossils are shown, apart from a reconstruction, but some localities are illustrated; other chapters provide a happier mixture of fossils and sites. The rigid structure of the text has authors repeating details as they have attempted to make each subheading comprehensive, which was not necessary. Thus, ‘The Bacchus Marsh assemblage appears to be the result of mass dying of a mob of female Diprotodon at the end of a prolonged drought’ (p. 96) is then needlessly repeated two paragraphs later (p. 97), ‘The accumulation of Diprotodon material at Bacchus Marsh appears to be the result of a mob of females dying en masse at the end of a drought’. Other hiccups include spelling (e.g. Palaeogene) and the use of ‘sediment’ when the author means ‘sedimentary rock’ (12 times on pp. 80–81!). And how could Permian rocks be ‘affected by Devonian thrust faulting’ (p. 81)?

The text is supported by various appendices, including a geological timescale (which, however, fails to detail the various stages mentioned in the text), detailed glossary and reference list, and adequate index. But the geological aspects could have been further supported and emphasised by the inclusion of relevant geological maps and measured sections; there are none.

Yet, despite any criticisms I may have, Australia's Geological Heritage is a beautiful book. Readers will probably focus on the localities and horizons that interest them, rather than read it from cover to cover as does a book reviewer, who has nevertheless learnt much, been entertained and has developed ideas for fieldwork. If Australian palaeontology is of interest to you, then I recommend Australia's Fossil Heritage as an important reference and general overview.