Leichhardt: A Scientist in a Strange Land

Leichhardt meets the megafauna

“It seems there was a time when gigantic Kangaroos of the size of a bullock or of a rhinoseos [sic] gambolled over the downs and who knows whether such strange things do not still exist in the tropical interior.”

Letter from Leichhardt to John Archer, 14 May 1844

During his scientific exploration of the Darling Downs in 1844, Leichhardt encountered the fossil bones of megafauna at Isaac’s Station. He was particularly intrigued by the fossil teeth of the giant Diprotodon, and observed that the dentition (the form of the teeth) was very similar to living marsupials such as the possum, kangaroo and koala.

In England, the leading anatomist Sir Richard Owen had studied megafauna fossils recovered by Sir Thomas Mitchell from the Wellington Caves near present-day Dubbo. Owen believed them to be fossils from an elephant ancestor. Leichhardt sent Owen a specimen, and using his knowledge of Australian marsupials, he illustrated that it was a giant marsupial and not an ancient elephant-like species. Owen seems to have ignored Leichhardt’s advice but many years later he reclassified the fossil of Diprotodon as being related to marsupials. However, he did not acknowledge Leichhardt’s original, and accurate, assessment.

In his musings on the megafauna, Leichhardt wondered if these animals could still be found living in the interior. Leichhardt’s thoughts reflect one of the most contentious arguments amongst archaeologists and palaeontologists today: what happened to the Australian megafauna?

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