The Fossil History of Australia

Cainozoic Era

Quaternary Period

(1.8 million years ago to present)

The Quarternary is the second period of the Cainozoic era, encompassing the Pleistocene and the Holocene epochs which take us up to present time.

Most of the world experienced an ice age during the Pleistocene period, but the northern part of Australia was mostly free of ice, Tasmania and some isolated high places were the main areas affected. There were less active volcanoes and, although still moving north, the land was more geologically stable than in previous times.The sea level fluctuated and, at times, was much lower than today's level. There was a land bridge to New Guinea and the mainland of Australia was also joined to Tasmania.

It is currently believed that the ancestors of the Australian Aboriginal people came across these land bridges, perhaps also bringing their wild dogs, the earliest dingoes. During the Pleistocene time, most of the marsupials known today were in existence, with many of these much larger than their descendants today.

There are fossils found of giant wombats, kangaroos, and koalas. There were also some animals which are now extinct, like the Diprotodon, which is the largest marsupial ever found, and was about the size of rhinoceros. A marsupial lion called a Thylacoleo, was among the few which could challenge the Diprotodon. Another future candidate for extinction was the giant goanna, Megalania, which was found in Central Australia.

Marsupial lion

During the Pleistocene, a giant emu-like bird roamed the land, and there was a rather large python called Wonambi, whose remains were found in South Australia. Many flamingoes lived around the inland lakes.

Temperatures were at their lowest towards the end of the Pleistocene time and there was another mass extinction of animals and plants at this time. Australia had moved into a more temperate climate, with less rainfall than in previous eras, with the exception of the most northern parts which were now in the tropical zone.

The Holocene epoch saw the rising of the sea level as the ice withdrew. This is the current time, of man, and of animals and plants still in existence today. Early Aboriginal man impacted his world with extensive use of fire. The arrival of European man in Australia meant the introduction of foreign flora and fauna and a new age of land clearing. These actions all had a subsequent impact on the environment and on the survival of some animals over others.

Although extinctions are still occurring both due to natural processes and due to our lack of management, there is a growing awareness of the intricate balance of life on this planet, and certainly an attempt by many to better understand and more effectively manage the environment we share with other living species.



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