Penguins under Middle Earth
If you enjoy penguins, you probably also enjoy the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Both provide an endless source of charm, adventure and wonder. Recently, I saw the Hobbit movie in a theater, and one of the interesting parts of the experience for me was that my mind kept wanting the action to stop so the characters could look for fossils. No, I have not lost my mind. As most viewers know from media coverage, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogies were filmed in New Zealand. With large swathes of wide open land and a variety of terrain, New Zealand is a perfect place to shoot an adventure epic. Wide-open windswept plains? Check. Majestic snow-covered mountain chains? Check. Otherworldly forests of fern trees, lancewood, and beech? Check. New Zealand is also a major center for sheep, with lots of rolling pastoral land which pleasantly resembles most reader’s imaginings of the Shire.
Few people expect to find a fossil near a peacefully munching sheep, but in fact several of the fossil sites I have visited on the South Island are within a pinecone’s throw of grazing flocks. One of the reasons this is so is the particular geological history of New Zealand. Back during the Oligocene, a prime era for archaic penguins, most of the present day islands were flooded by ocean waters. With just a shallow depth of water above, the environment was perfect for the formation of limestones and greensands, types of rocks that are often rich in fossils (and indeed often composed in large part of miniscule fossil shells). Limestone in particular is rich in minerals that plants require to grow, and so grazing grounds underlain by limestone support particularly good fodder for livestock. This makes me wonder if dwarfs ever marched over any fossils during their journey. With their remarkable mining skills, they probably could have excavated them in half the time it takes our paleontology team.