Ancient herbivores may give climate clues

Ancient herbivores may give climate clues

19:05 AEDT Thu May 3 2012
4 days 16 hours 28 minutes ago
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The bones of a 70-kilogram koala-like animal that lived in Australia’s trees around 15 million years ago could hold clues into the impact of future climate change, a scientist says.

Dr Karen Black, a vertebrate palaeontologist from the University of NSW, has made a career out of studying the extinct diprotodontids – herbivores that roamed Australia up to 24 million years ago.

The animals ranged from sheep-sized creatures to the monstrous two-tonne Diprotodon optatum – the largest marsupial that ever lived.

Among them was the 70kg Nimbadon.

“This one was quite unique because it was actually living in the trees and it is very similar to the modern koala in lots of aspects of its skeleton,” Dr Black told AAP, after presenting research in Canberra on Thursday.

The preserved remains of the ancient animal have been found in a fossil cave in the Riversleigh World Heritage Area in northwestern Queensland.

The fossils are remarkable because they they are well-preserved and map the animal’s life cycle from infancy to late adulthood, Dr Black said.

She is hoping that by studying the Nimbadon’s fossils, as well as other animals’ remains in the cave, scientists could unlock information into the nature and rate of environmental change in Australia’s past.

“They (the fossils) range in age from 24 million years up to about 40,000 years,” she said.

“Most of Australia’s modern fauna is represented there.”

In particular, it provides a window into a critical time in Australia’s climate history – when the country’s rainforests began drying out.

While other larger diprotodontids were able to survive for longer by moving with the shrinking rainforests, the Nimbadon was “overspecialised”, Dr Black said.

Dr Black said the fossils could give clues into which modern-day animals might fare like the Nimbadon and need conservation priority.

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