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8 things you didn’t know about Riversleigh fossil site

Do you love a good story? Admire the subtle beauty of the outback? Enjoy travelling to remote landscapes?

Why not head to the state’s far north west and discover the greatest story ever … fossilised?

We’re talking about Riversleigh, part of Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park, and one of the world’s top 10 fossil sites.

Captured in Riversleigh’s limestone lies a fascinating story that spans millions of years—the story of the evolution of Australia’s wildlife.

At Riversleigh you’ll discover ancient mammals, birds, fish, turtles, snakes and crocodiles that once roamed through lush rainforest and swam in freshwater lakes and are now preserved as fossils at your very feet.

Not sure how to get started on this adventure? Here are 8 things you didn’t know about Riversleigh.

1. Fossils are stories embedded in stone

 Fossil bird bones with ‘honeycomb’ texture are embedded in a limestone rock.
Bird bone fossils embedded in limestone | © Queensland Government

Fossils are like the pages of a storybook that are scattered across the ground. The pages must be found and sorted into chapters before the story can unfold.

Over the last 60 years, palaeontologists have found many fossil ‘pages’ at Riversleigh. They painstakingly extract perfectly-preserved fossils from their limestone beds, and piece together the Riversleigh chapter of the story of the evolution of our wildlife.

Fossils embedded in Riversleigh’s limestone tell us about the gob-smacking diversity of mammals that evolved over the last 25 million years, when Australia became isolated after the breakup of Gondwana. As research continues, the story of Riversleigh continues to unfold.

You can call into the Riversleigh Fossil Centre in Mount Isa to see more about the work of palaeontologists who are piecing together the story of these mammal fossils.

2. Not all fossils are dinosaurs

Illustration of mother and calf diprotodons, wombat-like mammals.
Wombat-like marsupials, Diprotodons | © Jane Jehne

Riversleigh fossils are among the richest and most extensive in the world, but you won’t find any dinosaurs here! Riversleigh fossils come from a more ‘recent’ period in prehistory—the time when mammals inherited Australia, after the demise of the dinosaurs.

Riversleigh’s famous collection of mammal fossils includes wombat-like marsupials, carnivorous kangaroos and vast numbers of bats.

If you want to see dinosaurs, include the Dinosaur Trail, through Winton, Richmond and Hughenden, into your travel plans. Here you’ll gaze at fossils of gigantic dinosaurs from around 98 million years ago (many dug up in outback paddocks!) and marvel at the famous 100 million year old dinosaur footprints at Lark Quarry.

3. Some animals were pretty weird!

Illustration of giant crocodile with enormous jaw and numerous fang-like teeth.
Big bird (Dromornthorid)| © Jane Jehne

Fossils reveal that some weird and wonderful creatures roamed Riversleigh over the past 25 million years. For instance, there was ‘fangaroo’ (a vegetarian kangaroo with fangs) and its more fearsome mate, a flesh-eating ‘killer-roo’ with a mouth chock-full of teeth.

Then there was the ‘demon duck’ aka Big Bird (an enormous flightless thunderbird or dromornthorid) and Baru, a giant cleaver-headed crocodile with huge razor-edged teeth.

While you won’t see all these at D Site, you will get glimpses of Big Bird and Baru along with diprotodons, bats and turtles.

And, because the geology of Riversleigh is a story that goes waaaay back, you’ll also see 1600 million year old stromatolites and 530 million year old limestone ‘pancake stacks’!

4. You can see the fossils for yourselves

An interpretive sign stands next to a fossil-bearing rock, explaining how the turtle became fossilised.
Signs along Fossil trail | © Queensland Government

You can take a guided tour of the Fossil trail at Riversleigh D Site, but you don’t need to. You can explore the self-guided 800m return walk on your own. Interpretive signs along the track point to fossils embedded into the rock, making them easy to find.

You’ll learn about each fossil (and the ancient animal that became the fossil!) from its sign, and you can wander along the trail at your own pace. The mostly-unshaded trail climbs to the top of a hill with expansive views over the surrounding savannah landscape—time your visit to avoid the heat in the middle of the day!

A cave-like visitor shelter at the start of the trail presents all you need to know about the background to Riversleigh D Site.

5. You’ll see a living fossil in Lawn Hill Gorge

Head and carapace of a large freshwater water turtle are covered in green algae.
Gulf snapping turtle, Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park| © Greg Watson Photography

In the 1980s, Riversleigh researchers identified a 40,000 year old fossil turtle as the gulf snapping turtle. Almost a decade later the gulf snapping turtle was found, alive and well, in Lawn Hill Creek!

In fact, these large freshwater turtles live in several of the creeks and rivers in the area. Keep your eyes peeled when you visit Lawn Hill Gorge for a swim or canoe paddle in the creek—you are sure to see this living fossil!

6. Riversleigh D Site is just one of many study sites

A track leads to a low flat-topped hill covered in grass, with occasional small trees.
Riversleigh D Site | © Queensland Government

The first palaeontologists studying Riversleigh in the 1960s named their study sites using letters of the alphabet. D Site, the only fossil site open to the public today, was one of the first study sites.

Since then, ‘paleos’ have studied many other sites at Riversleigh, using a little more creativity with their names.

We have: Crusty Meat Pie Site (rock surface resembles the crust of a meat pie); Burnt Offering Site (missed many times until it was exposed by fire); Sticky Beak Site (discovered after a volunteer went for a ‘sticky beak’ and found a fossilised bird’s beak); and Camel Sputum Site (just to prove they have a sense of humour).

7. You have a choice of accommodation nearby

Campervans and tents are dotted amongst trees in the gorge with a backdrop of red sandstone.
Lawn Hill Gorge camping area| © Queensland Government

Take your pick of 3 accommodation options near D Site. If bush camping with minimal facilities (hybrid toilet and tank water) is your style, look no further than Miyumba camping area near the shaded banks of the Gregory River, just 3.5km south of D Site.

Ramping it up a notch is the Lawn Hill Gorge camping area with water, flushing toilets and cold showers. Partly-shaded sites are spread along the banks of Lawn Hill Creek in the lush surrounds of Lawn Hill Gorge, an oasis in the dry savannah landscape, 50km north of Riversleigh D Site.

Then, at the top end of the market, is Adels Grove, offering everything from creek-side camp sites to cabins with ensuites and air con! There are even dinner and breakfast packages, if you’re tired of camp food! Adels Grove is 10km from Lawn Hill Gorge and about 50km north of Riversleigh D Site.

8. Special to all the world

Two people with hats and daypacks look closely at a rock containing a fossil along the trail under a clear blue sky.
Fossil trail, D Site, Riversleigh | © Queensland Government

The Australian Fossil Mammal Sites at Riversleigh (and Naracoorte, 2000km away in South Australia) were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1994 for their outstanding representation of the evolution of Australian mammals and the quality of their fossils.

In 2019, we celebrated 25 years of World Heritage! Riversleigh’s fossils are among the richest and most extensive in the world, telling the story of the evolution of Australian mammals—the most isolated and most distinctive mammal fauna in the world!

What better reason do you need to make the trek out to Queensland’s far north west and discover the fascinating Riversleigh story for yourselves?

Find out more about Riversleigh World Heritage Site, Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park.

Last updated: 30 July 2020

Acknowledgement of Country

The Department of Environment and Science acknowledges Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and custodians of the land. We recognise their connection to land, sea and community, and pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.

Design developed by Boyd Blackman, a Butchulla and Birri Birri man, featuring the artwork of Elaine Chambers, a Koa (Guwa) and Kuku Yalanji woman.