Rare Fossil Find Has Aussies Boasting
Scientists say they have found the remains of meat-eating kangaroos, giant snakes, horned turtles and other creatures that lived 15 million years ago.
They fear, however, that it is only a matter of time before tourists vandalize the site for souvenirs.
They claim that the fossils eclipse anything found before, and dozens of new species are emerging from the ancient rocks on this outback ranch, 160 miles from the nearest town, Mt. Isa in northern Queensland.
Other finds include minuscule opossums, rabbit-sized marsupials that lived exclusively on eggs and a prehistoric platypus. Many remains are a mystery.
“Riversleigh is unique because it unfolds the history of native Australian animals over 20 periods in time,” said Dr. Michael Archer, an associate professor of zoology at the University of New South Wales. “There’s nowhere else in the world we can do that.”
100 New Species, Subspecies
“It’s a gold mine,” he added in an interview. “Riversleigh is the paleontological equivalent of the Rosetta Stone.”
The Rosetta Stone, an inscribed basalt slab now in the British Museum, was found in 1799 and provided scholars with the key to translating Egyptian hieroglyphic.
Archer said his team has found more than 100 new species or subspecies of animals.
“We’ve doubled our knowledge of Australian prehistory,” he said. “That has tremendous implications for the history of evolution as we knew it.”
Much of the area, limestone rocks dotted with termite mounds and gum trees, remains unsurveyed, but Archer, 41, said he thinks it extends at least 60 square miles.
He is concerned, however, about what will happen now that news of the find has spread.
Protecting the Area
“What worries me is the bush beaters, men who go out with the boys for the weekend in four-wheel drives, guzzling beer and shooting everything in sight,” he said. “There are times you come across a water hole filled with dead wallabies, 200 at a time. You know someone has just sat in his jeep and blasted away. If they find this place they’ll strip it.”
Barry Cohen, the Australian government’s environment minister, is moving to have the area declared a protected site.
“It’s of major national and international significance,” he said. “But I don’t think the nation has yet realized the importance of it.”
Mt. Isa, a town of 26,000 people, has a small tourist trade centered on the world’s deepest copper mine.
Archer wants to set up ranger patrols to check visitors and keep them from removing fossils.
This year he hopes to retrieve 15 tons of fossils. To cover expenses, he is promoting tours for people interested such things. They would pay the equivalent in Australian dollars to $525 for 10 days and $1,400 for a month’s stay.
Paleontology, the study of fossils, is a relatively new science in Australia, the world’s oldest continent.