Cuddie Springs and the Downfall of Large Animals

Prehistoric events documented in the lake’s deposits

Climate change is not new. It has been fluctuating on our planet forever, although never before have people contributed so much to the climatic changes as we have in the past 100 years. Along with these changes new forms of plants and animals evolved. The most recent period of the Earth’s geological history - the Quaternary (from 2.58 million years to present) - was punctuated by a series of global glacial phases spaced by warmer intervals. In this period all continents saw the rise of very large animals, possibly a competitive adaptation. In Australia, the large marsupial mammals, large flightless birds and reptiles comparable in size to Komodo dragons were found. They, like many animals before, were destined for extinction. The end of the glacial period (about 10,000 - 15,000 years ago) saw a rapid demise of many large animals around the world, sometimes called the Mass Quaternary Extinction. This synchronised demise of large animals strongly suggests that a global climatic change played its role, setting different ecological conditions for life on Earth.

One of the fashionable theories postulates that the extinction of Australia’s large animals was caused by humans who arrived in Australia for the first time about 50,000 - 60,000 years ago. In this scenario direct over-killing resulted in rapid extermination and ecological impact was caused mainly by the excessive burning of bush and forests. Yet, some of the large animals, including the large kangaroo-like Procoptodon goliah (up to 200 kilograms, extinct about 15,000 years ago), the giant wombat-like Diprotodon optatum (up to 3.6 tonnes, extinct about 25,000 years ago) and the 2 metre tall bird Genyornis newtoni (over 200 kilograms) survived much longer. Some of these animals lived side by side with humans for about 30,000 years or more. Those survivors suggest greater complexity in the demise of the large animals and bring into question human hunting as the main cause of extinction. Cuddie Springs is virtually the only site in Australia where well stratified and dated evidence of coexistence of humans with large animals around 30,000 – 36,000 years ago is found.


Glacial - periods of extensive ice formations associated with cold climate


Dr Stan Florek , Collection Officer
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