This episode, we dive in (not literally – we wish!) to the paleontology of Australia’s Naracoorte Caves, among the world’s best windows into the last several hundred thousand years of Australia’s history.
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The Naracoorte Caves
The Naracoorte Caves, located in South Australia, are a series of caverns that contain some of the world’s best Pleistocene fossil assemblages. The fossils range in age from over 500,000 years ago and just about up to the present day.
The caves are a great source of information on Australia’s Pleistocene Megafauna, the large animals that dominated the continent until only tens of thousands of years ago. These big critters included the “marsupial lion” Thylacoleo, the large herbivorous diprotodontids, and several big kangaroos, not to mention the giant lizard “megalania” and the big snake Wonambi (among others).
The timeline covered by the caves includes hundreds of thousands of years of environmental change, the arrival of humans in Australia, and the extinction of those megafauna, making these caves extremely important in the study of the Pleistocene Megafaunal Extinction.
The caves also document the evolution of more familiar recent animals like Tasmanian devils and thylacines, as well as the history of modern Australian ecosystems. This makes the caves a key source of information for paleontologists interested in Conservation Paleontology.
The Naracoorte Caves were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 along with fossils sites from Riversleigh, Australia. This offers the fossil remains – and other scientifically-interesting features like cave geology and bat populations – a welcome level of national protection. The caves are also an extremely popular tourist attraction.
This non-technical article by researchers Liz Reed and Lee Arnold is a great overview of the history of the caves with lots of great pictures.
For more photos and updates, you can also follow Dr. Liz Reed on Twitter.
Ongoing research 3D-scanning the caves was recently reported upon in the Naracoorte Herald.
Reed 2012. Of Mice and Megafauna: New insights into Naracoorte’s fossil deposits. A detailed technical review of the history of paleontology in the caves.
Lots more technical papers are listed in the various Research pages of the Naracoorte Caves website.