Scientists spent three years secretly excavating a fossil site

Scientists from the University of New South Wales, the University of Canberra and the Australian Museum have discovered a fossil site filled with preserved animals and plants from the Miocene, keeping it a secret for three years while excavating it.

The Miocene Epoch was an era dating back between 5 million and 23 million years ago, which means that the quality of these fossils is not only incredibly rare, but also a goldmine of paleontology (the study of ancient life).

Inside this treasure trove of fossils dating back to the Miocene era, scientists have found the remains of ancient trapdoor spiders, giant cicadas and wasps of astonishing quality. The site is named “Lagerstätte” – that is, a site that contains fossils of exceptional quality, many of which are very recent to science. The results have been published in Science Advances.

The site is called McGraths Flat, and it is located near the town of Gulgong in New South Wales. It is one of the few fossil sites in Australia that contains fossils of this type, making it a very important find.

Scientists have spent the past three years excavating the secret fossil site, and have kept it from the public until now. During the three-year excavation period, scientists found thousands of fossils, including rainforest plants, insects, spiders, fish and bird feathers.

“Until now it has been difficult to tell what these ancient ecosystems looked like, but the level of conservation at this new fossil site means that even small, fragile organisms like insects have been turned into well-preserved fossils,” says Dr Matthew McCurry, a senior lecturer at UNSW. Wales.

“The fossils we found prove that the area was once a temperate rainforest, and that life was rich and abundant here in the middle of the tableland.”

Excavation at McGraths Flat. Photo: Salty Dingo, UNSW

Fossils were found at McGraths Flat within an iron-rich “goethite” rock. It is an interesting rock to find these fossils, as goethites which often contain high quality fossils are not found.

The theory scientists are currently dealing with is that the fossils formed when iron-rich groundwater drained into billabong, coating organisms with iron minerals. Evidence at the secret fossil site also indicates that the rainforest ecosystem present at the site millions of years ago is beginning to dry up.

“The fossils also preserve evidence of interactions between species,” says Dr. Michael Fries of the University of Canberra.

For example, we have fish stomach contents preserved in fish, which means we can tell what they were eating. We also found examples of pollen grains preserved on insects’ bodies so that we could tell which species were pollinating which plants.

“The discovery of melanosomes – the subcellular organelles that store the pigment melanin – allows us to reconstruct the color pattern of birds and fish that previously lived at McGraths Flat. Interestingly, the color itself is not preserved, but by comparing the size, shape, and stacking pattern of the melanosomes in our fossils with the pigment In existing samples, we can often reconstruct color patterns and/or colors.”

The fossils found at the site are giving scientists a window into the past and a better idea of ​​the climate millions of years ago, filling in gaps in our knowledge.

Professor Christopher Helgen, Chief Scientist at the Australian Museum and Director of the Museum’s Research Institute added: “Australia is the most biologically unique continent, and this site is very valuable in what it tells us about the evolutionary history of this part of the world.”

“We love that the public has always been fascinated by these fundamental human endeavors of exploration and discovery.”

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