Budding paleontologists will have a field day—or week—in South Australia. Naracoorte Caves are among the world’s most significant fossil sites, and ancient landscapes here yield well-preserved fossils from the coast to Coober Pedy and beyond.
UNESCO rates the Naracoorte Caves as among the world’s ten greatest fossil sites, where “one of the richest deposits of vertebrate fossils from the glacial periods of the mid-Pleistocene to the current day (from 530,000 years ago to the present) is conserved.”
In 1969, cave explorer Grant Gartrell and paleontologist Rod Wells were hunting for fossils in what is now known as the Victoria Fossil Cave. They climbed through a narrow passageway and pushed aside rocks to discover a concealed fossil chamber. For over 200,000 years, animals had been falling into the chamber through a hole in the ceiling, creating an enormous collection of well-preserved fossils. It was the most significant find of Pleistocene fossil bones in Australia, with over 5,000 specimens catalogued so far.
Tours of the Victoria Fossil Cave include the fossil chamber, where guides explain the finds and you can see reconstructed skeletons like that of the marsupial lion. The Wonambi Fossil Centre at the park is a great stop to see life-size recreations of the extinct giant marsupials and reptiles once found at Naracoorte.
Maslin and Aldinga Bays
Some of Adelaide’s best beaches are also significant fossil sites. Maslin Beach, 25 miles south of the city center, and adjoining Aldinga Beach have inspired numerous scientific studies, with many invertebrate fossil species uncovered here.
The scenic beach and its cliffs have long attracted geology and paleontology students, as well as beach lovers. Bands of limestone and sandstone date back more than 40 million years at the base of the cliffs and contain rich fossil deposits of sponges, bryozoans (moss animals), molluscs, and sea urchins, as well as flora fossils.
A trail runs along the top of the cliffs with easy access to the beach. There are good fossil-hunting grounds at the base of the cliffs around Blanche Point at the southern end of Maslin Beach, and farther around the point to Port Willunga.
These low hills north of the Flinders Ranges near Leigh Creek made paleontology headlines in 1946 after the discovery of soft-bodied organism fossils. The Ediacaran biota gave new insight into the evolution of life and a little-known period of the Earth’s history. It was so significant the hills gave their name to the Ediacaran geological period.
The Ediacara Conservation Park protects the area, which also contains ruins and mine shafts from mineral extraction dating from the 1880s to 1918.
Lake Callabonna, found in a remote desert region off of the Strzelecki Track to Innamincka, is renowned for finds of Diprotodon optatum, the world’s largest known marsupial. The rhino-size herbivore was bucktoothed, as its scientific name indicates, with its two front teeth used for cutting vegetation. It existed until as recently as 25,000 years ago.
The Flinders Ranges and Kangaroo Island are also noted for rich fossil finds, and shops and museums in the opal-mining regions of Andamooka and Coober Pedy have opal fossils on display. The South Australian Museum in Adelaide has a superb collection of local fossils in its megafauna, Ediacaran, and opal fossils galleries, all on the museum’s third level.
Practical Tip: Well-known fossil sites are protected by conservation parks, where the removal of fossils is prohibited, and a permit system restricts the export of fossils. Hunt for fossils, but take photos, don’t remove your fossil finds, and email any finds you think may be significant to the South Australia Museum.