Paris - Caves in the sun-scorched wilderness of southern Australia's Nullarbor plain have revealed one of the world's most remarkable collections of fossils, including species of now-extinct kangaroos that lived hundreds of thousands of years ago.
The three Thylacoleo caves, located about 100km from the coast, were uncovered by potholers in 2002.
The find "is without precedent in Australia. Several new and previously incompletely known species are represented by whole skeletons," enthuse a team of researchers, reporting on the treasure trove in Thursday's issue of Nature.
The fossils date back to the Middle Pleistocene era, between 800 000 and 200 000 years ago.
They include 23 species of kangaroo, eight of which had never been identified before. Two of the species were tree kangaroos which had adapted to living in branches.
Other animals were several species of wallaby, a range of lizards including a large species called the King's skink (Egernia kingii), a carnivorous marsupial called the mulgara, which was related to the endangered Tasmanian devil, and two parrots.
Most of the creatures fell to their deaths from the surface, tumbling down pipe-like openings into the cave, whose floor was 20m below.
Of the 69 vertebrate species found in the caves, 21 did not make it through the Pleistocene, an era that spanned 1.8 million to 11 550 years ago and led to the Holocene, as today's post-Ice Age period is called.
Here's an other article about the fossils discovered in Thylacoleo Caves.
Beasts hounded to extinction Evidence is mounting against ancient humans in the case of disappearing megafauna, reports science writer Leigh Dayton
IT must have been an unpleasant end. If the 20m fall to the floor of the cave didn't kill them outright, hunger, thirst and their injuries soon did. Yet above ground, the flat and arid landscape of the Nullarbor Plain fringing the Great Australian Bight gave no hint to the drama below, then or now. "Then" was roughly 500,000 years ago. "Now" was 2002. That's when a team of cavers made what has been hailed as Australia's paleontological find of the century: an extraordinary trove of fossils representing dozens of species of prehistoric birds, beasts and reptiles. Among them were fearsome claw-footed kangaroos, Sthenurines, that weighed inat 300kg; enormous Genyornis, at200kg the heaviest bird known; and the leopard-sized marsupial lion, Thylacoleo carnifex. The long-gone beasts, so-called megafauna, have set scientific hearts aflutter. That's because extensive study of the fossils and the cave, reported this week in the journal Nature, purport to end the longest-running mystery in Australian prehistory: who or what killed off the exotic mammals and flightless birds that once roamed the continent.
If the incriminating new evidence holds up, the suspect, Homo sapiens, will be found guilty of yet another case of mass murder. Early hunters have already been held responsible for the demise of large animals such as sabre-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths in North America, as well as of island creatures such as New Zealand's flightless kiwi.
It seems that when people arrive in a new land they wreak havoc before coming to a more harmonious relationship with the environment. Their methods are as diverse as the animals they wipe out: overhunting, killing off breeding animals, introducing disease, changing the environment and generally stressing to extinction animals unfamiliar with such formidable predators.
While the Australian whodunit has raged for decades - one camp arguing that climate change took out the megafauna, the other that people did the deed - the latest scientific case against Australia's first human settlers began to build five years ago when Western Australian Museum paleontologist John Long heard of the spelunkers' discovery.
Sensing that they'd spotted a site of potential significance, Long gathered a team and headed south from Perth to check it out. They found fossils littering three caves they called the Thylacoleo Caves in honour of their discovery there of the first complete thylacoleo skeleton found. One field season stretched to three for Long.