Scientists from the NT Museum and Flinders University have discovered the remains of a giant hippo-like animal near Alice Springs, a find that will shed new light on the Territory’s prehistoric past.
For 25 years, palaeontologists from the two institutions have been painstakingly extracting the remains of giant flightless birds, wombat-like creatures and crocodiles from a nearly 7 million-year-old fossil site near Alcoota, 180km northeast of Alice Springs.
This month, in addition to finding fragments of a new species of wallaby, and an 50cm-long crocodile skull – the first such complete specimen to come from the site – they uncovered another important piece of Australia’s early history.
The researchers found jawbones of four Zygomaturus gilli, a species ancestral to the giant hippo-like animal that roamed Australia up to 45,000 years ago.
Dr Gavin Prideaux from Flinders University said the discovery was very exciting.
“One of the problems with Alcoota is that we’ve never been able to date it directly,” Dr Prideaux said.
“These Zygomaturus gilli specimens give us a strong tie in with similar specimens found at a site to the south of Melbourne that have been dated at about 5 ½ million years. It is going to help us lock Alcoota in to a tighter timeframe,” he said.
The discovery gave an insight into “how much there is to learn just at the one site, let alone the whole of Australia”, Dr Prideaux said.
“The reality is we know perhaps one percent of Australia’s fossil history. It’s like having ten pieces in a 1000-piece jigsaw; there’s a great temptation to reconstruct the picture based on those pieces, but the likelihood is that we’ll almost certainly get it wrong.”
Dr Prideaux paid special tribute to Dr Dirk Megirian, the NT Museum’s Curator of Geology and Palaeontology in Alice Springs, who passed away after a long illness while at Alcoota in July.