Fossil Vertebrates of the Swan Coastal Plain

DRB Nats, 8 March 2024

Dr Thorn is a technical officer at the Western Australia Museum, where she manages the terrestrial vertebrate collection (birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians). She shared her love of vertebrate palaeontology with descriptions of early 1900s explorations and her own experiences in caves up and down the WA limestone coast.

Thorn explained the various ways that animals can become trapped in cave bottoms to accumulate dead bodies and soils for research. Eminent researchers were Mr. E Le Soeuf, who discovered Mammoth Cave in the Margaret River region, and Kimberley. Then, 40 years later, Ernest Lundelis, a patron of the Flinders University Palaeontology Society, rose to prominence by looking at pitfalls and owl pellets for a mixture of fur and bones.

Thorn shared that not only could it check what animals eat rodents, but 7000 years of vegetation identified when mammals like the Western Bandicoot disappeared, and the Southern Brown Bandicoot rose to prominence. Devils’ fossils <1000 years old were found in Wedges Cave, a 1955 habitat now restricted due to housing.

We were astonished to learn about WA’s fauna diversity, including that WA had the youngest Thylacine fossil in Australia. Short-faced Kangaroos, Common Wombats, a Koala with dimples, and numerous snake skeletons have been discovered. The Wonambi Snake was described by First Nations peoples as a possible rainbow serpent because it was bigger than an Olive Python.

She explained that on one dig, specimens of over 4,000 skulls and bones were obtained in a small specimen bottle, and she had hundreds in the photograph—quite a scientific puzzle. She also identified that instructing support staff to use the same-sized sieve or record when any equipment change occurs is most useful for accurate research data.

Finally, Thorn covered how anyone can apply for a Miner’s Right to dig for surface fossils @$29.50 from DMIRS and explained the dos & and don’ts of being safe and responsible when seeking out private or indigenous land areas to dig. Crown land, state forests, and national parks are forbidden from taking fossils. On Rottnest Island, you are encouraged to take photographs and leave fossils in place. This is vital so palaeontologists can return after examining their digging finds and replicate places and conditions at different times. The museum will identify a fossil for you and, if unusual, can ask to retain it for their extensive collection.

Arlene Quinn