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Newly discovered fossils offer insights into Australia’s rainforests millions of years ago

Researchers say they uncovered new species and learned how those species interacted in the ecosystem.

(CN) — Researchers announced Friday they have discovered an array of exceptionally well-preserved fossils from millions of years ago when rainforests dominated Australia.

According to an article published in the journal Science Advances, the fossils paint a vivid picture of these rainforest ecosystems during the Miocene epoch, which occurred between 23 and five million years ago. A deposit in New South Wales offered scientists their best look yet into the ecosystems on a continent that has since transformed.

“The amazing quality of preservation of the fossil site gives us this amazing ability to look into these ecosystems and say not only which species were around but how they were acting,” said lead author Matthew McCurry of the Australian Museum Research Institute in an interview.

McCurry said the remarkable preservation of the fossils allowed him and his colleagues to do more analysis than they had before and get an unprecedented peek into Australia’s Miocene.

“We’ve got lots of types of animals that are really difficult to fossilize, like spiders,” McCurry said. He noted that across the continent, scientist had previously only described four fossilized spiders. “We’ve got 13 fossil spiders in this one site alone. That gives you a bit of a benchmark of how important finding these things is.”

The fossils at the site are so well-preserved that McCurry said they can illuminate how different species interacted with each other. Some of the fossilized insects had pollen preserved on their bodies, allowing researchers to identify the plants the insects were pollinating. Other species had the contents of their stomachs preserved showing what they ate. The stomachs of some fish contained insect larvae and even a dragonfly wing.

One fish had a fresh-water mussel attached to its tail, evidence of the parasitic relationships between species at the time. The mussels only attached to the fish for a few weeks at a time to feed and be transported up and down the rivers.

“When paleontology gets featured on films and in TV, they often show a paleontologist standing beside these graveyards of a hundred whole skeletons of dinosaurs, and that normally doesn’t happen,” McCurry said. He said he hopes people can appreciate how rare it is to discover such well-preserved fossils.

McCurry said fossil-finding in Australia is difficult because the continent is heavily eroded.

“When we do find fossils, they’re normally just fragmentary pieces of the hard parts of organisms [like] shells, bones or teeth,” McCurry said.

Specific to the Miocene, McCurry said there are very few fossil sites in Australia that help researchers understand a wide scope of the ecosystem at the time, particularly the plants and insects. He said these aspects are important because the Miocene marks the continent’s transition to a more arid climate as the rainforests shrank.

“[The Miocene] really established what modern-day Australia looks like — the deserts and the shrublands that we now characterize the continent using,” McCurry said. “We haven’t had that good insight into those rainforest environments before the discovery of this fossil site.”

McCurry said the article was “just the tip of iceberg” and an overview of their discoveries. Going forward, he said they will dive into naming and describing the variety of species found, many of which he said are new to science. They also want to look deeper into how the site was formed.

“The type of rock that we found these fossils in isn’t a place that we would go looking for exceptionally preserved fossils up until now,” McCurry said. “This could open up the potential of finding similar fossil sites worldwide.”

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