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Scientific Accomplishments of Reginald Claude Sprigg

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Appointing R.C. Sprigg in 1949 as Head of the new Regional Mapping Section of the Geological Survey of South Australia was decisive to its rapid success and high national reputation. Sprigg had vast enthusiasm for all things in natural history and especially earth history, appreciation of the economic drive, the ability to frame deep and meaningful questions in feedback with geological mapping, strong grasp of the interplay between geo-structure and geo-history, and exemplary follow-through to completion (not invariably) as richly illustrated papers and regional and thematic maps. By age 35 he had changed the culture of South Australian Geology and departed the GSSA. in 1954 Sprigg moved on to geological and biological exploration in a spirit of private enterprise in economic development. Others expanded the research programs although from time to time he revisited his early interests in the light of developments in the earth sciences, such as the revolution in continental drift and plate tectonics and advances in late Neogene chronology and correlation. The earth-science of hydrocarbon exploration unified most of Sprigg's preoccupations in private enterprise with reviews and syntheses. His histories and popular works gave insights into the rapidly changing scientific, industrial and environmental-awareness scenes and into his view of his own contributions.

Adelaide Geosyncline. At the outset of his career Sprigg achieved the most comprehensive advance in the geology of the complex and difficult Adelaide region in more than 150 years. The Mawson-Sprigg Adelaide System with its Torrensian, Sturtian and Marinoan Series was vintage Sprigg. He recognised the Adelaide miogeosyncline as a fossil continental terrace, much older than any that had been recognised hitherto. When his notions of flysch facies and the relationship of the Kanmantoo Group to the Adelaide System were clarified (with Bruno Campana) Sprigg realized that the Kanmantoo eugeosynclinal trough marked the initiation of the great Tasman Geosyncline of eastern Australia.

Ediacaran biota. In a clear case of the prepared mind and the deliberate search, Sprigg had been alert for a decade to the necessary existence of animals without mineralised skeletons before he discovered the fossils which became the basis for the Ediacaran assemblage of animals of latest Precambrian age. He described and named 17 species of pelagic coelenterates (“jellyfish”) of which about one-third survived as recognized taxa and some as higher animals. He saw himself as much biologist as geologist, and his handling of the comparative morphology, taphonomy and reconstruction, taxonomy and biological inferences was confident and secure.

Late Neogene in southern Australia. In employing the term “Kosciuskan epoch” in his earliest work, Sprigg perceived the late uplift as being coeval with and part of the uplift of the highlands of southeastern Australia, and he sustained this view of neotectonic activity when it was unfashionable, as in petroleum exploration in Mesozoic-Cenozoic sedimentary basins. Finding strong indications of a cyclical pattern in the remarkably regular lateral succession of fossil beaches in the South-east of South Australia, he took the intuitive leap of explaining this regional pattern with the Milankovitch theory of ice ages, which were still be integrated with the geohistorical record. In due course geomagnetic and oxygen-isotopic stratigraphy would confirm his 1940s theory that the aeolianites record a punctuated succession of high sea levels (i.e., interglacials). (Subsequently Sprigg added the calcareous aeolianites to the counterclockwise whorl of siliciclastic dunes in a grand vision of windy, glacial Australia, but his initial theory is the survivor.) Predicting that the Pleistocene River Murray might produce a canyon at the shelf edge, he convinced the Navy to make the necessary traverse and the canyons were found (the first on the australian margin). With S.A. Shepherd, and again expanding his research far beyond Australian knowledge at the time, he systematically sampled the benthic faunas of Gulf St Vincent and Investigator Strait, the ensuing map becoming a benchmark for monitoring subsequent degrading of the local marine environment and insights into generating bryozoan carbonates.

Petroleum geology. Campaigning for hydrocarbon exploration, Sprigg kept the earth sciences in focus while shifting emphasis from the highly original and collaborative research of his early years to reviewing and supervising and, by the 1980s, to the history of petroleum geology and exploration. His tectonic style of structural lineaments and morphological trends at continental scale reversed (coevally with Sherbon Hills) the long-time neglect of young deformation on this continent (now neotectonics).

Overview. The historicist and structural strands are clear in Sprigg's science. His historicism, the sense of always-present historical change, of development, of succession in the world and its biosphere, inculcated most conveniently in education through palaeontology and stratigraphy, he got from Howchin. He lifted South Australian historical geology to a new level in three steps. One was comprehensive immersion in the geology of the Adelaide district. The second was responding strongly to M.F. Glaessner's rigour in stratigraphic thinking. Third was general reinvigoration of his thinking as he concentrated more on petroleum geology. The second strand was structural, the deep-seated discontinuities acting as geosynclinal and basinal controls, coming down to him from Lockhart Jack, already apparent in his mapping in the 1940s and illuminated further by the Geosurveys geologists' field mapping. Sprigg reiterated down the decades the absence of structural thinking and structural mapping, of three-dimensional visualizing, from the earlier collective consciousness of Australian geology and from the academic climate in Adelaide. His preoccupation with lineaments survived his embracing continental drift and plate tectonics; he appears to have been first in print to attempt to integrate the latter into Australian hydrocarbon exploration; but others were expanding our horizons in the stratotectonics of sedimentary basins.

In balancing the structural with the historicist, Sprigg was well armed to resist the explorational simplicities of the times in minerals and hydrocarbon exploration. And he was uniquely versatile and inspiring in the natural sciences of this continent and their context of exploitation and conservation.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: May 1, 2013

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  • In 2004, the South Australian Museum and the Royal Society of South Australia became partners in Southern Scientific Press. This led to the amalgamation of their two professional journals. The Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia now incorporates the Records of the South Australian Museum.
    Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia deals with natural history relating to South Australia
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