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Riversleigh’s Parade of Life

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Koala - ancient companion of the gum tree


Imagine … catching sight of a fossilised creature that hasn't seen the light of day for 20 million years.  Your heart's pounding,  your spine's tingling as you stare in delighted silence, trying to identify the extraordinary animal from a lost world.   Unwrapping gifts from prehistoric Queensland is the everyday for Senior Preparator Al Rackham and Volunteer Jo Riddington at the Riversleigh Fossil Centre's laboratory in Mount Isa.  

The lab located at Outback at Isa, Mount Isa's Tourism Centre, stopped extracting fossils in late 2009, only returning to the task in late 2016. We don't dwell on the reasons why this happened but rather concentrate on the 'parade of life' that now tumbles from the ancient limestones.  

Every day there is an extreme buzz of excitement as Al and Jo extract specimens from limestone collected many years ago, from the site known as 'Two Trees' in the Riversleigh World Heritage area near Adels Grove.   Recently, amongst the emerging biological paraphernalia of lung fish jaws, turtle shells, snake vertebrae and cat fish barbs, something even more surprising protruded.  On its unexpected path to immortality, the pearly molar of a marsupial mammal appeared. 

Uncertain from what doomed animal it belonged, Al showed it to visiting Palaeontologist, Professor Mike Archer. The Professor took a very educated guess that this 'little furry' may be from an extinct species of koala, but to be sure we will send it off to Sydney for further analysis.  

It is thought that koalas (who were smaller than their modern counterparts) were rare in Australia's ancient rainforest landscape. Singling out eucalypts as their special resource, the ancestral koala developed a dependency that persists to this day. Eucalypts thrive in poor soil, so as the rainforest rapidly deteriorated in the dryer climate, the gums with their rare dinner guests persisted and flourished in expanding areas of nutrient impoverished soils.  

It is exciting to be a part of Riversleigh's prehistoric menagerie where the past unfolds and presents a jigsaw puzzle of hundreds of tiny bits and pieces. Exquisitely preserved species from the Riversleigh fossil fields in Northern Australia tell the story of the 'Australia Marsupial Arc'.  When the rest of the world's mammals were developing into elephants, tigers, bears and horses, we were developing our flesh eating kangaroos; rhinoceros sized wombats, marsupial lions and fuzzy little koalas.  

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