David Attenborough celebrates the 25-year anniversary of the Riversleigh World Heritage Area

By Australian Geographic | July 2, 2019

The Australian Fossil Mammal Sites, including Riversleigh and Naracoorte, were listed as World Heritage sites 25 years ago today.

THIS MONTH marks the 25-year anniversary of the fossil deposits of Riversleigh being made a World Heritage site. 

Riverseleigh and Naracoorte, collectively known as the Australian Fossil Mammal Sites, gained international recognition in 1994.

Paleontologists and natural history buffs are commemorating the anniversary by holding an event at the World Heritage Area and reflecting on its significance. 

Over the years countless fossils have been recovered from the Riversleigh World Heritage Area, including ancient marsupial lions, carnivorous bilbies and bandicoots, and big birds.

David Attenborough, a long admirer of Riversleigh who regards it as one of the great wonders of the palaeontological world, wrote a letter to commemorate the anniversary.

UNSW Professor Mike Archer, who received the letter, was asked to read out the kind words at the official celebrations. 

Professor Archer was one of the early pioneers in uncovering the paleontological treasures at Riversleigh from the 1970s and was critical to the site being listed as a World Heritage Area.

Naracoorte Caves. (Image credit: Wikimedia)

Read the letter (in full) below:

Riversleigh is one of the great wonders of the palaeontological world. What other site has produced such an extraordinary assemblage of mammals, birds, reptiles and many other creatures hitherto completely new to science. Not just one or two species but literally hundreds of them. And not just new but undreamed of. Who would have dared to imagine herds of marsupials the size of sheep grazing in the treetops while hanging upside down like sloths?   

These revelations are the more remarkable when it is remembered that the difficulty of preparing Riversleigh specimens is also almost unparalleled. But that very difficulty has brought its own reward. It has preserved not just the bones and teeth of these prehistoric animals, but even soft tissues, in fact so perfectly preserved that actual cells can be seen. Astoundingly, even structures within these cells, like the nucleus that once contained the animals’ ancient DNA, have also been recovered from Riversleigh’s rocks. 

And just as importantly, Riversleigh’s fossils are making it possible to determine how to save one of the rarest of surviving marsupials, the Mountain Pygmy-possum, a critically endangered alpine marsupial now threatened with extinction because of global warming. Understanding the deep time history of this possum’s lineage recorded in the Riversleigh rocks has now made it possible to devise a strategy by which the surviving species may be saved. As a result, Riversleigh fossils, while extraordinary in their own right, are now teaching us how to rescue the living.

Will the revelations of Riversleigh ever come to an end? My bet is there are lots more to come and that the next twenty-five years of research into the resources of these World Heritage-listed fossil deposits will add far more to Riversleigh’s already extraordinary story.