Published: October 2010

Extinct Megafauna

Dreamland Animals

Australia’s Lost Giants

Seven-foot-tall kangaroos, rhino-size browsers, enormous flightless birds, and a predator that could kill them all: Such were the megafauna that once dominated Australia. Then humans arrived, and most of the giant animals vanished. Did the Ice Age finally catch up with them? Or did humans hunt megafauna to extinction?

By Joel Achenbach
Art by Adrie and Alfons Kennis. Photographs by Amy Toensing

You will find the Naracoorte Caves in the pastoral wine country of South Australia, four hours from Adelaide on lonely roads heading toward what the Aussies call the Southern Ocean. The grapevines thrive in red soil that sits like a layer of icing on porous limestone. It's lovely country, but it can be treacherous. The ground is pocked with holes, many no wider than a café table, known as pitfall traps. They're deep. They plunge into the blackest of caverns. Pitfall traps have gobbled up many a kangaroo bounding through the night.

One day in 1969 a fledgling fossil hunter named Rod Wells came to Naracoorte to explore what was then known as Victoria Cave. It was an old tourist attraction, with steps and handrails and electric lights. But Wells and half a dozen colleagues ventured beyond the tourist section, clawing through dark, narrow passages. When they felt a suggestive breeze wafting from a pile of loose rubble, they knew there was a chamber beyond. Wells and one other slithered into the huge room. Its expansive floor of red soil was littered with strange objects. It took Wells a moment to realize what they were looking at. Bones: lots of bones. Pitfall-trap victims galore.

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