Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

What Lies Beneath

Gavin Prideaux excavating an extinct kangaroo skull from beneath the Nullarbor.

Gavin Prideaux excavating an extinct kangaroo skull from beneath the Nullarbor.

By Stephen Luntz

A small pit in the ancient Nullabor woodlands proved to be a deathtrap for ancient Australian marsupials, birds, reptiles and frogs – and a treasure trove of intact skeletons for palaeontologists.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

On an August 2011 expedition to a cave beneath the Nullabor, palaeontologist Dr Gavin Prideaux provided the world with an online opportunity to learn what really occurs on a dig. The richness of the site ensured that visitors to his temporary blog had a chance to experience important developments in our knowledge of Australia’s ecological history.

The Nullabor cave is remarkable, both because it contains millions of years of vertebrate history and because the skeletons to be found there are so often intact.

The land above the cave was once open woodland or savannah. Prideaux explains: “A lot of marsupials are active at night, and they wouldn’t see a small hole about a metre across”. The hole is a pitfall trap, with the bottom 20 metres below, providing no opportunity for an animal to escape.

While such a space could be expected to reveal a rich source of bones, the cave in question offers more. There are several ledges on the way down, and it seems that many of the animals were not killed by the fall. After plunging the last few metres they picked themselves up and walked off to other parts of the large space to die. Consequently there are many intact skeletons rather than a confusing jumble of bones.

So many examples of the so-called marsupial lion (Thylacoleo carnifex) have been found in this and neighbouring caves that they have been given...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.