Research website of Dr Gilbert Price

Digging up Diprotodon

It was around August 2011 that my friend, Ian Sobbe, received a phone call from a local on the Darling Downs: “I’ve found a skull in the dirt- it looks like a Grand Angus bull”, the caller said. Well, Ian, being not only a local farmer from the Downs but also an amateur fossil collector, started to get excited. Knowing a lot about the fossils from the region, Ian checked out the photos that the local had emailed him and immediately called me up. The skull was not a Grand Angus at all, but as Ian correctly identified, it belong to the extinct mega-marsupial, Diprotodon.

The Diprotodon skull was found eroding out of this creek bank

The Diprotodon skull was found eroding out of this creek bank

Diprotodon was a giant among giants- not only the largest marsupial that lived on the Darling Downs during the Pleistocene, but is also the largest marsupial that ever lived… at any time… anywhere on the entire planet! Resembling an oversized long-legged wombat, Diprotodon was truly the king of Ice Age Australia. The cause of its extinction around 40 thousand years ago is heavily debated. The leading hypotheses developed to explain its extinction are centred around climate change associated with the last glacial cycle, or human impacts (such as through overhunting). The debate is one of the most polarised in Australian palaeo-sciences. The difficulty in determining the cause of the extinction of Diprotodon and other megafauna, is in part, due to a lack of reliable data with which to test the leading extinction hypotheses- especially well-dated fossil records. But here, Ian and I saw a great opportunity to travel out to the new fossil site, not only to excavate the new specimen, but to collect some samples critical for dating.

The Diprotodon is over 90cm long!

The Diprotodon is over 90cm long!

Ian and I met with the discoverer and travelled down to the creek where the skull was found eroding out of an ancient deposit. Our jaws dropped when we saw it- it was a monster, measuring around 90 cm in length! With the help of the discoverer, we excavated the skull. During the day, I spent a bit of time documenting the geology of the area, as well as collecting some sediments for optically-stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating. There was also a little bit of charcoal buried in amongst the skull- I also collected it with the plan to date it using radiocarbon methods.

The plaster jacket containing the skull weighed around 170 kg!

The plaster jacket containing the skull weighed around 170 kg!

 

We put a plaster jacket around the skull to protect it, but it was just so enormous that the three of us were not able to carry it. We were able to lift it with some difficulty- Ian and the local on the back-end, me on the front, but we just couldn’t move it out of the deposit- we sunk right down into the mud and couldn’t move. We ended up going back to the vehicles and drove around the neighbourhood looking for help. We came across some electrical tradies and asked them for assistance- thankfully they said ‘yes’! It took five of us to get the skull up out of the gully, carried across the field, and lifted into the back of Ian’s ute. We estimated that the plaster jacket, with the skull and surrounding sediment, weighed around 170 kg!

Ian is currently in the process of preparing the skull. It’s starting to look pretty good too- one of the best preserved skulls that has ever been discovered, not only on the Darling Downs, but across the entire continent. I’ll be sure to post some pics of the skull when it is finally cleaned up!

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Gilbert Price

Vertebrate palaeontologist at The University of Queensland
Gilbert has diverse research interests that include the study of Ice Age megafauna extinctions, climate and human impacts on coral reefs, and development of new fossil dating methods.