Naracoorte Caves may hold secrets to 130 species and how some megafauna became extinct


New technology is helping Australian paleontologists dig up some of our country's ancient secrets - and the findings could shed light on the future.

Dr Liz Reed has spent the last 20 years digging for answers in the giant underground Naracoorte caves system in South Australia.

The vertebrate paleontologist based at the University of Adelaide wants to know how and when Australia's mega fauna died out.

“This is the ultimate cold case,” she says.

“Hundreds of thousands of years of time, and we’re trying to work out ‘whodunnit’, if you like.”

The limestone caves, which lie near the Victorian border, hold a rare deposit of fossils.

Dr Liz Reed
“This is the ultimate cold case": Dr Liz Reed.
SBS World News

The remains of more than 130 species - including long extinct species like the marsupial lion and giant kangaroo - have fallen through a hole in the earth above over half a million years.

Dr Reed says the dry, stable environment of the caves has kept them well preserved.

“They’ve preserved these deposits like tombs,” she says.

“We see things like completely articulated skeletons of these extinct animals, almost where they lay down and took their last breath.”

With a new $2 million research grant from the Australian government, scientists hope to soon know a lot more about the fossils and their environment.

New technologies to provide rare insights

Led by University of Adelaide researchers and supported by the local council, South Australian museum and the state government among others, the funding will help provide new tools to map and date the fossils.

Dr Reed says the research project aims to shed more light on their history than ever before.

“One of the key things we’re using are the 3D technologies and virtual technologies, so we’ll be mapping these caves using 3D scanners, which will give us a really precise image of the caves,” she says.

“We also have amazing dating technologies at our disposal... for example, some of our techniques, you can actually date the last time a grain of sand saw sunlight.”

“Some of this stuff even blows my mind, because it’s so new.”

She says finding out what happened during mass extinctions in the past could be critically important in preserving species in the future.

“Extinction is something which is very real today. Many people say we’re facing the next wave of extinctions, and the beauty of the Naracoorte deposits is, we’re dealing with, for the most part, species that are still alive today.

“So if we study those and these lost giants and see how they responded to climate, and even the arrival of people into Australia, it gives us a window into the future and how we can work to conserving species today.”

Naracoorte Lucindale Council Mayor Erika Vickery has been visiting the caves since she was a child, and says she looks forward to the rest of the world discovering their cultural and scientific value.

“I don’t think there are too many communities in the whole world that have this,” she says.

Visitors can tour the caves for a fee.  

Those who go will find a 500 thousand year long record of the past, with many more secrets to discover. 

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