After 2 years of exploration in deep underground caves, we unveil this remarkable fossil

After 2 years of exploration in deep underground caves, we unveil this remarkable fossil

Title: Unearthing a Rare Fossil: The Journey to Retrieve a Near-Complete Skeleton of an Extinct Kangaroo

Embarking on a challenging two-year mission, a team of researchers and cavers ventured into the depths of Potholes Cave Reserve in eastern Victoria, Australia. Their goal was to excavate an extraordinary fossil – a nearly complete skeleton of the extinct short-faced kangaroo, Simosthenurus occidentalis. This article recounts their arduous journey and the significance of their findings.

The Discovery:
The discovery began in 2011 when a local caving group stumbled upon an unusual animal skull in Nightshade Cave. Recognizing its potential importance, one of the cavers reported the find to Melbourne Museum. However, the skull appeared to be irretrievable due to its location under boulders in a narrow vertical collapse. The cave was subsequently closed to protect its contents.

The Return:
In 2021, renewed interest in the find led to a return expedition. Equipped with ropes and determination, the team descended into the cave, navigating through tight passages and narrow chambers adorned with delicate stalactites and calcite formations. After hours of exploration, they rediscovered the fossil, only to find it in a state of collapse. The changing air currents and humidity had made it vulnerable.

The Retrieval:
Over subsequent trips, the team carefully excavated and preserved the fossil. They uncovered not only the skull but also vertebrae, shoulders, hips, limbs, and a narrow ribcage. The fossilized remains were remarkably intact, providing a rare glimpse into the anatomy of this extinct kangaroo species.

Identification and Significance:
Through detailed comparisons with fossils in the Museums Victoria State Collection, the skeleton was identified as Simosthenurus occidentalis. Comprising 150 preserved bones, it is the most complete fossil skeleton found in a Victorian cave to date. The fact that it belonged to a juvenile kangaroo further distinguishes it from other examples of the species.

Insights into Australia’s Megafauna:
Short-faced kangaroos were once abundant in Australia’s rainforests, but they disappeared around 45,000 years ago during a period of mass extinction. The radiocarbon dating of the skeleton places it at 49,400 years old, making it one of the last of its kind. This finding sheds light on the extinction of Australia’s megafauna, including up to 85% of its species.

Research Opportunities:
The near-complete skeleton provides valuable insights into the anatomy and behavior of short-faced kangaroos. Researchers are particularly interested in studying the creature’s gait and whether it walked rather than hopped. With detailed 3D models, scientists from around the world can now study this unique specimen.

Preservation and Global Research:
The fossil, along with others from Nightshade Cave, is now housed at Melbourne Museum’s Research Institute. This ensures its perpetual care and preservation while also providing a gateway to global research. The discovery not only connects us to East Gippsland’s past but also opens doors to a deeper understanding of Australia’s ancient fauna.