All he was doing was cooling off on “quite a ripper’’ of a day, taking his dogs for a swim in a popular swimming hole.
But Michael Johnston, from Ranfurly in New Zealand, ended up making a discovery of international significance and put Maniototo — an inland region in Otago — into the record books by finding a series of fossilised footprints millions of years old.
The footprints were the first moa prints to be found in the South Island and a “glimpse into the past before the ice age’’, Professor Ewan Fordyce, of the University of Otago’s department of geology, said.
A moa is a large extinct flightless bird resembling the emu, formerly found in New Zealand.
The imprints were found in the bed of the Kyeburn River, about 15km from Ranfurly, and their discovery was thanks to “an amazing coincidence of circumstances’’, Dr Mike Dickison, a moa expert, said.
“I’m amazed at the luck of finding them — catching it in this very brief window between being exposed and being scoured out, and then that somebody happened to be fossicking around and went for a swim and noticed them,” Dr Dickison said.
“If any one of those things hadn’t happened, we would never have known they were there, and it makes you wonder how many other moa prints are buried or destroyed, or no one knows they’re there.’’
The imprints were thought to have been exposed by significant flooding in the Maniototo late last year and would likely not survive another flood event, Otago Museum natural science assistant curator Kane Fleury said.
Mr Fleury acted immediately when Mr Johnston sent photos of the footprints to the museum when he found them in early March. He met Mr Johnston at the site and used an underwater camera, snorkel and mask to examine the markings, which were about one metre under the water.
Seven clear footprints were found, each about 30cm by 30cm, and an action, preservation and excavation plan for the footprints was immediately prepared.
Plans to extract the footprints yesterday were delayed because of rain yesterday morning that raised the river level, but today the footprints will hopefully be extracted.
They will then be taken to the Otago Museum, where they will be dried and made stable and later put on temporary public display.
Dr Dickison said it was likely the moa would be a new species from a branch of the “moa family tree’’ from millions of years ago and was most likely a medium-sized moa that could be similar to the upland moa.
Mr Fleury said the discovery was “pretty awesome’’ and a career highlight for him.
“It’s not every day you find moa prints in the creek,’’ he said.
Mr Johnston said he had never been a fossil seeker before, but he might now “walk around the hills with wider open eyes’’.
He praised museum staff for their respect for the moa prints, and museum staff praised Mr Johnston for reporting the find of the footprints to the museum.
This article originally appeared on the New Zealand Herald and was reproduced with permission