National Geographic : 2010 Oct
• In boneyards across the continent, scientists have found the fossils of a giant snake; a huge ightless bird; a wombat-like creature the size of a rhinoceros; and a seven-foot-tall kangaroo with a strangely short face. ey've found the remains of a tapir-like creature; a hippo-like beast; and a lizard, 20 feet long, that ambushed its prey and swallowed everything down to the last feather. e Australian megafauna dominated their ecosystems---and then were gone in an extinc- tion spasm that swept away nearly every animal that weighed a hundred pounds or more. What, exactly, killed them o ? By Joel Achenbach Photographs by Amy Toensing YOU WILL FIND THE NARACOORTE CAVES IN THE PASTORAL WINE COUNTRY OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA, four hours from Adelaide on lonely roads head- ing toward what the Aussies call the Southern Ocean. e grapevines thrive in red soil that sits like a layer of icing on porous limestone. It's lovely country, but it can be treacherous. e ground is pocked with holes, many no wider than a café table, known as pitfall traps. ey're deep. ey plunge into the blackest of caverns. Pitfall traps have gobbled up many a kangaroo bounding through the night. One day in 1969 a fledgling fossil hunter named Rod Wells came to Naracoorte to explore what was then known as Victoria Cave. It was an old tourist attraction, with steps and handrails and electric lights. But Wells and half a dozen colleagues ventured beyond the tourist section, clawing through dark, narrow passages. When they felt a suggestive breeze wa ing from a pile of loose rubble, they knew there was a chamber beyond. Wells and one other slithered into the huge room. Its expansive oor of red soil was littered with strange objects. It took Wells a moment to realize what they were looking at. Bones: lots of bones. Pitfall-trap victims galore. Victoria Fossil Cave, as the cavern is now known, warehouses the bones of something like 45,000 animals. Some of the oldest bones belonged to creatures far larger and more fear- some than any found today in Australia. ey were the ancient Australian megafauna---huge animals that roamed the continent during the Pleistocene epoch.