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An arid-adapted middle Pleistocene vertebrate fauna from south-central Australia

Abstract

How well the ecology, zoogeography and evolution of modern biotas is understood depends substantially on knowledge of the Pleistocene1,2. Australia has one of the most distinctive, but least understood, Pleistocene faunas. Records from the western half of the continent are especially rare3. Here we report on a diverse and exceptionally well preserved middle Pleistocene vertebrate assemblage from caves beneath the arid, treeless Nullarbor plain of south-central Australia. Many taxa are represented by whole skeletons, which together serve as a template for identifying fragmentary, hitherto indeterminate, remains collected previously from Pleistocene sites across southern Australia. A remarkable eight of the 23 Nullarbor kangaroos are new, including two tree-kangaroos. The diverse herbivore assemblage implies substantially greater floristic diversity than that of the modern shrub steppe, but all other faunal and stable-isotope data indicate that the climate was very similar to today. Because the 21 Nullarbor species that did not survive the Pleistocene were well adapted to dry conditions, climate change (specifically, increased aridity) is unlikely to have been significant in their extinction.

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Figure 1: Location of the Nullarbor plain and Thylacoleo caves.
Figure 2: Fossils from the Thylacoleo caves.
Figure 3: Stable carbon-isotope and oxygen-isotope values (δ 13 C and δ 18 O) from the enamel of kangaroos and wombats.

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Acknowledgements

We thank P. Ackroyd, K. Boland, R. Gibbons, G. MacLucas, J. MacLucas and E. Taylor for bringing their discoveries to our attention, and for cave mapping and field assistance; C. Bryce, G. Deacon, L. Hatcher, D. Megirian and M. Norton for field assistance; G. Kendrick and A. Baynes for identifying gastropod and rodent fossils, respectively; and P. Latz, J. Magee, D. Megirian, G. Miller and P. Murray for discussions. This study was supported by two grants from the Rio Tinto WA Future Fund to the Western Australian Museum. Isotopic analysis was funded by a US National Science Foundation grant.

Author Contributions G.J.P. was responsible for site descriptions, faunal analysis, data synthesis and writing the paper, J.A.L. fieldwork coordination, L.K.A. stable isotope analysis, J.C.H. U-series dating, B.P. magnetic polarity assessment, M.N.H. lizard identifications, W.E.B. bird identifications, R.G.R., M.L.C. and L.J.A. optical dating, P.D.D. site interpretation, and N.M.W. small marsupial identifications.

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Correspondence to Gavin J. Prideaux.

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This file contains Supplementary Table 1-8, Supplementary Figures 1-6 with legends, Supplementary notes and additional references. The file consists of geochronological results, observations on depositional environments and processes, and palaeoecological data too detailed to include in the main text, but which directly underpin it. (PDF 683 kb)

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Prideaux, G., Long, J., Ayliffe, L. et al. An arid-adapted middle Pleistocene vertebrate fauna from south-central Australia. Nature 445, 422–425 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature05471

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