Fossil treasure trove found in wastewater pipe dig

266 fossil species were discovered.
Loukia Papadopoulos
An image of the fossils.jpg
An image of the fossils.

Bruce Hayward 

Researchers in New Zealand have stumbled on 266 fossil species in an Auckland wastewater pipe dig, an area that was completely hidden from paleontologists making the discovery a very pleasant surprise. The find is notably one of the richest and most diverse groups of three-million-year-old fauna ever found in the small nation and will likely lead to at least ten previously unknown species being discovered.

This is according to a press release published on Sunday.

An unexpected find

The rare finds date from 2020 when Auckland’s Watercare workers were doing construction for a significant upgrade of the major pipeline that brings raw sewage for treatment from the central city. The workers accidentally hit an ancient shell bed and once informed of the fossil deposit’s significance proceeded to provide a huge heap of shelly sand so that paleontologists could search through it uncovering precious finds. 

Watercare also funded future research into the find resulting in an estimated 300,000 fossils being examined and classified. Today, several thousand of these fossils have been placed in the museum as a record of this “once-in-a-lifetime find”.

Auckland paleontologist Bruce Hayward compared the event to “finding gold right on your door step.”

“Detailed identification of the fossils shows that they were deposited between 3 and 3.7 million years ago in a subtidal channel in an early version of the modern Manukau Harbour”, said Hayward.

 “At that time, sea level was slightly higher than it is today as the world was also several degrees warmer than now. As a result, the fossils include a number of subtropical species, whose relatives today live in the warmer waters around the Kermadec and Norfolk islands. At least ten previously unknown species are present and will be described and named in future work.”

Five researchers took part in the study and were able to identify a record 266 different fossil species, indicating that the find is the richest and most diverse fauna of its age ever discovered in the country.

Different environments

 “What is surprising,” further added lead author Hayward “is that the fauna contains fossils that lived in many different environments that have been brought together in the ancient marine channel by wave action and strong tidal currents. It includes ten specimens of the iconic NZ flax snail that must have lived on the adjacent land and been washed down into the sea by storm runoff. These are by far the oldest known flax snails in the world. Most of the fossils lived on the sea floor, some in brackish estuaries, others attached to hard rocky shorelines and still more have been carried in from offshore of the exposed west coast at the time.”

“Rare finds have included isolated baleen whale vertebrae, a broken sperm whale tooth, the spine of an extinct sawshark, dental plates of eagle rays and a number of great white shark teeth.” 

The find, dedicated to Dr Alan Beu, New Zealand’s leading molluscan fossil expert who passed away this year, is a strong indication of nature’s constant ability to surprise us. Discovered in an area previously completely unknown to paleontologists, the find is a real treasure trove of fossils whose study can result in a greater understanding of our past history and evolution.

The study was published in the New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics.