In the small South Australian town of Naracoorte exists a complex of limestone caves.  It was here, in 1969, that one of Australia's most significant palaeontological discoveries was made.  Deep within Victoria Fossil Cave, a silt deposit containing the remains of many tens of thousands of Pleistocene animals was found. 

    The following text was sourced from a draft nomination prepared by Dr. Suzanne Hand in June 1988.  Its purpose was to propose that the Pleistocene vertebrate deposits of the Victoria Fossil Cave be included in the World Heritage List on behalf of the South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service.  The effort to have the cave designated was a success, and in 1994 the country town of Naracoorte gained the distinction of having its very own World Heritage site.  Please also visit the official Naracoorte Caves National Park web site, as it contains much additional information.

visitor centre of Naracoorte Caves National Park
The new visitor centre (Wonambi Fossil Centre) of Naracoorte Caves National Park, opened in 1998.
Courtesy: Shannon Architects.


A Collaborative Programme for Research and Interpretation

History of the Naracoorte Discoveries:

    Pleistocene fossil bones found at Naracoorte Caves were first reported by the Rev. Tenison-Woods (1859) from Blanche Cave.  He believed he had found evidence of the 'biblical flood' in Australia.  The fossils attracted attention at a time when the great evolution/creation debate was raging in England and Europe but they were never to receive the prominence of earlier finds at the Wellington Caves in N.S.W.  Instead the Naracoorte caves gained greater acclaim as a Victorian pleasure garden.  Indeed, the Big Cave (as Blanche Cave was then known) and the site where the bones were found, became a venue for balls and gala occasions.

    In 1908 Prof. Stirling described remains of the enigmatic marsupial 'lion' from Specimen Cave.  This produced a ripple of interest in the scientific community but again the potential for further finds was not recognised.  In 1963 and 1964 members of the Cave Exploration Group of South Australia collected 52 well preserved specimens of three species of extinct sthenurine kangaroos from Haystall Cave (Merrilees, 1965).  The same group discovered more specimens in Fox Cave, all being lodged with the South Australian Museum.  At this time, Rod Wells, a palaeontologist and member of the Cave Exploration Group began an earnest search of the cave system for further fossil material.

    Success came in 1969 when Gartrell and Wells discovered an extension to the Victoria Cave.  Breaking through to a series of new caverns and passageways they discovered a chamber containing the remains of tens of thousands of fossil vertebrates.  Today this is known as the Fossil Chamber.  Exploration continued and in 1971 Galbreath and Wright squeezed through a very small opening many hundreds of metres beyond the Fossil Chamber to discover the Lower and subsequently the Upper Ossuaries.  These spectacular deposits were later to feature in Attenborough's "Life on Earth" series (1979).

    Excavation of the fossils in the Fossil Chamber began in late 1969 under the supervision of Rod Wells of Flinders University and continues to the present.  Rod invited Kevin Moriarty, then in the Geology Department at Adelaide University, to undertake geological investigations aimed at determining the age of the cave systems and the fossil deposits.  This work continues to the present day.  In December 1969, under the guiding hand of the late Ernest Maddock, then Director of National Pleasure Resorts of which the Naracoorte Caves complex was one, the Fossil Chamber was opened to the public; a new tourist entrance to the cave was built and opened in 1971; the cave was renamed Victoria Fossil Cave in 1975; a visitor centre and laboratory was built and opened to the public in 1979.

    During the last twenty years approximately 138 cubic metres of sediment and bones have been removed from three pits within the Fossil Chamber representing approx. 4% of the estimated 5000 tonnes of bone-laden sediments.  This comparatively small volume has resulted in 5,200 museum catalogued specimens, these being but a small fraction of the total fossil material so far prepared.  Only a small representative sample has been removed from the surface in the Ossuaries for dating, otherwise these chambers remain in near pristine condition.

    The Pleistocene fossil vertebrate deposits of Victoria Fossil Cave are considered to be, in terms of both volume of fossil-bearing sediment and faunal diversity, Australia's largest and best preserved (Wells et al., 1984).  As such, the deposits, which extend back to at least 280,000 years BP, provide an unsurpassed record of The pre-european Australian environement and Australian Late Pleistocene life.

mandible of Bettongia sp. (rat kangaroo)
A mandible of Bettongia sp. (rat kangaroo) from Victoria Fossil Cave.  The Naracoorte Caves have preserved a wealth of fossil macropodid species.  Actual length - 67 mm.
    From the 3-4 m deep Fossil Bed, tens of thousands of specimens representing at least 93 vertebrate species have been recovered.  These include superbly preserved examples of the Australian Ice-Age Megafauna (giant, extinct mammals, birds and reptiles) as well as a host of essentially modern species such as the Tasmanian devil and thylacine, wallabies, possums, bettongs, mice, bats, snakes, parrots, turtles, lizards and frogs.  The fossil material includes complete postcranial remains (many of which are partially articulated) and skulls so well preserved that even the most delicate bones (e.g. the nasal turbinals) are still intact.

    The fossil remains are believed to have steadily accumulated over thousands of years until sedimenturing into the cave eventually completely blocked the entrances to the chambers.  Ancient skulls and bones also litter the floor of the Upper and Lower Ossuaries of Victoria cave, where they have rested undisturbed since the Ice Age.  Indeed, all the known caves of the area have been subjected to the same processes and contain either fossil or sub-fossil vertebrates.  Some, such as Specimen Cave, are of importance as the specimens occur in sediments capped by a flowstone floor, and are thus amenable to dating.  Furthermore the geological history along with the recovery of rare and unusual specimens from caves interesected during nearby quarrying suggests the preservation of older Pliocene faunal elements in addition to those of the Pleistocene.  Continuing exploration and scientific investigation of the complex has shown that some of the caves in the complex are interconnected, while others are suspected to be.  Factors affecting one cave in the complex (e.g. a change in surface drainage caused by vegetation removal) may indirectly or even directly affect the others.  The potential for further discoveries is extremely high.  To ensure preservation of the deposits in Victoria Fossil Cave and realise the full scientific potential of the locality, appropriate management involves the entire complex.

    The property is nominated under the World Heritage Convention's category of natural heritage, and specifically as an outstanding example representing a major stage of earth history, including the record of life.

General characteristics of property:

    The property is located in the South-East region of South Australia approximately 320 km south-east of Adelaide.  It occurs in what is described (SANPWS 1986) as a rural landscape of cleared pastoral and cropping land with scattered native and introduced trees, and extensive softwood forestry plantations.

    The area has a cool, moist climate with long, mild, relatively dry summers and maximum rainfall occurring in winter.  The region is one of covered karst.  The caves of the Naracoorte Caves Conservation Park are formed in the Oligo-Miocene Gambier Limestone capped by the Naracoorte East Dune, the oldest of a series of stranded coastal dunes that range inland as far as the township of Hynam.  In the Late Pleistocene, the caves were open to the surface allowing sediment and bones to accumulate in their entrances and dolines, the most significant of these accumulations being those of Victoria Fossil Cave.  The South-East's natural history, including its geography, hydrology, ecosystems and flora and fauna has been described in detail in Tyler et al. (1983).

satellite image of the area surrounding Naracoorte Caves National Park
Satellite image of the area surrounding Naracoorte Caves National Park, with inset of the visitor centre.
Satellite image: Google Earth.
Acknowledgement: This subsection of Thylacoleo Revealed is based upon the following: HAND, S. 1988. Draft Nomination of the Pleistocene Fossil Vertebrate Deposits of Victoria Fossil Cave Naracoorte, South Australia for inclusion on the World Heritage List. Unpub. report to SA National Parks and Wildlife Service.
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