Prehistoric rainforest fossils hidden in rusty rocks in Australia

The central Australian plateau, hundreds of kilometers northwest of Sydney, is today dominated by tall grasses and trees. But scientists recently discovered that some of the region’s rusty rocks hide traces of the lush rainforest that covered the region 15 million years ago during the Miocene era.

The region, McGraths Flat, is not Australia’s only Miocene deposit, but these new fossils are a fossil boon due to their remarkable preservation. For the past three years, paleontologists have excavated flowers, insects, and even fluffy bird feathers.

The scientists’ findings, published Friday in the journal Science Advances, helped reconstruct Australia’s Miocene rainforest in great detail, and the site “opens up a whole new field of exploration for Australian paleontology,” said Scott Hocknall, paleontologist at the Museum of Queensland who was not involved in the research.

Fifteen million years ago, a river carved through the forest, leaving Rainbow Lake (known as Billabong in Australia) in its wake at McGraths Flat. This stagnant, almost oxygen-free pond keeps scavengers in place, allowing plant matter and animal carcasses to pool. As iron-rich runoff from nearby Basalt Mountains seeped into Billabong, the pool’s low pH caused iron precipitation and encapsulation of organic matter. As a result, the McGraths Flat fossils have been preserved in a dense, iron-rich mineral known as goethite.

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