Rainforest plants, Trapdoor spiders, a bird feather and even the contents of a fish’s stomach are just some of the 15 million year old fossils found perfectly preserved at an archeological site in the NSW Central Tablelands known as McGraths Flat.
In a dusty farm paddock just outside of Gulgong, Australian Museum and University of NSW palaeontologist Dr Matthew McCurry, his colleague Michael Frese of the University of Canberra, and a team of researchers have been fossicking away in secret for three years to uncover one of the most significant fossil sites ever found in Australia.
A Different Landscape
The fossils are believed to be between 11 and 16 million years old, which puts them in the Miocene era, a period of major environmental change as the continent drifted further north.
‘The fossils we have found prove that the area was once a temperate, mesic rainforest and that life was rich and abundant here in the Central Tablelands, NSW,’ McCurry said.
An environment almost impossible to imagine in the arid and dry landscape that now covers the area.
The sheer diversity of species found is key to gaining a picture of what the environment was like before an abrupt climate change event around 14 million years ago, turned it into the landscape we know today.
’Until now it has been difficult to tell what these ancient ecosystems were like, but the level of preservation at this new fossil site means that even small fragile organisms like insects turned into well-preserved fossils,’ McCurry said.
Preservation of Unprecedented Proportions
The findings were recently published in the Science Advance journal, astounding the paleontology world with the quality of preservation. In fact, the site has been classified as a ‘Lagerstätte’ a discovery site of exceptional quality, so much so that even soft tissue may have been preserved.
From the minute detail available in these fossils, researchers are able to determine the colour pattern of a bird feather and see the breathing apparatus of a spider.
The quality of preservation at McGraths Flat was so great that there’s even evidence of interactions between species.
‘We have fish stomach contents preserved in the fish, meaning that we can figure out what they were eating. We have also found examples of pollen preserved on the bodies of insects so we can tell which species were pollinating which plants,’ Frese said.
Around 2000 specimens have been uncovered so far, which are now undergoing the process of being cross-referenced with current flora and fauna records and there’s expected to be dozens of new species discovered.
Feature photo by Salty Dingo | Courtesy of Australian Museum
Other images by Michael Frese | Courtesy of Australian Museum