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Footprints In Ash -

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Footprints in ash (30/04/2009)

TRANSCRIPT

NARRATION:

The rolling hills of western Victoria are pockmarked with geological history - small peaks that are
the remains of some of the youngest volcanos on the Australian mainland. Today this is a lush
landscape inhabited by plenty of cattle and sheep, but not so long ago it was a very different
place inhabited by some very unusual creatures. Through the fog of time come the marks of beasts
that roamed this area 120,000 years ago.And they have attracted the attention of some eager
palaeontologists. Stephen Carey from the University of Ballarat heads up the excavations. He'd
heard that there were footprints in the lake but until the recent, prolonged drought, they were
usually covered by water. I spoke to the land owners and they showed me the footprints and a very
exciting project has developed as a result.

Dr Paul Willis:

Oh wow! Boing, boing, boing, boing - this is obviously a kangaroo!

Dr Stephen CareyThat's right. These footprints are distinctive in that beside the large toe they've
also got this secondary toe here which is indicative of the extinct giant wallaby called
Protemnodon. They disappeared around 50,000 years ago.

NARRATION:

Stephen shares the laborious job of recording every single footprint with post-graduate student,
Aaron Camens . Stephen and Aaron walk off together, measure and photograph footprints. There are
hundreds of footprints here and interpreting them is a huge task.

Aaron Camens:

What we've got here is a little wombat trackway coming through and we're just cleaning it up to
expose the digits a bit more.

Dr Paul Willis::

And this would be the living Common Wombat would it?

Aaron Camens:

Well, from this particular site we've got a range of footprint sizes and probably the larger ones
are from an extinct species known as Ramsayia and it was about half as big again as a modern
wombat. But certainly a lot of the footprints here are about as large as a modern wombat.

NARRATION:

One of the wonderful things about footprint fossils is they can actually tell you something about
the behaviour of an extinct creature, you can almost read the mind of a creature as it lived
thousands of years ago. Take this set of footprints for example. They're from a creature called
Zygomaturus and this one was just wandering across the landscape - not a care in the world - and he
gets to the top of this low rise here and he's looking out over a shallow lake. And the way that
the footprints have become muddied here - you can almost hear him thinking "Do I really want to get
my feet wet?". Well he obviously thought it wasn't such a bad idea and he wandered off into the
pages of prehistory. David Pickering from Museum Victoria has joined the excavations. He's
particularly interested in an unusual occurrence; mixed in with the footprints, there are
fossilised bones.

David Pickering:

This is the other half - the front of this foot bone that we found earlier.

David Pickering:

Here you've got hollows, you've got ripples and we're getting bones in those ripples. We are
getting material from kangaroos, extinct wallabies, short-faced kangaroos and we've also found a
partial jaw of a Thylacoleo - a marsupial lion.

NARRATION:

Later, in my Summer plumage, I caught up with Aaron Camens back at the University of Adelaide.

Dr Paul Willis:

Well you've been busy with the sticky tape!

Aaron Camens :

Yes, we go through a lot of it here! So this is the actual interpretation of the trackway that's
been traced from the photographs.

Dr Paul Willis::

And what's this diagonal, zig-zaggy line that you've got running down there - what's that all
about?

Aaron Camens:

This is what we call the pace angulation and, by measuring this, we can get an idea of the gait of
the animals.

Dr Paul Willis:

So what have you managed to find out about this animal?

Aaron Camens:

Well at the start the hands and feet are quite separate which means the animal was moving
relatively slowly and then later on in the trackway the footprints are much closer together
indicating an increase in speed, so it was probably trotting towards the end.

NARRATION:

And while Aaron Camens has been working hard deciphering the ramblings of the ancient beasts, he's
also had time to take a closer look at those bones from the site.

Dr Paul Willis:: Well these are looking a lot better than the last time I saw them! Any idea how
many different kinds of animals you've got?

Aaron Camens:

There - we've probably got five or six different kinds of animals here Paul but the majority of
them are wombat teeth, kangaroo teeth and kangaroo limb bones.

Dr Paul Willis:

And are those the same kinds of animals you see the trackways of?

Aaron Camens

Well that's an important point because we actually see a slightly difference in the fauna
represented by the footprints and the skeletal fossils.

Dr Paul Willis:

And a bonus you guys have is this specimen which apparently is part of a marsupial lion!

Aaron Camens

That's right, that's an animal called Thylacoleo. It's the lower jaw and it's the only bone we've
found representing that animal.

Dr Paul Willis:

But it's not just bones of Thylacoleo you've found - you have more intriguing evidence of their
existence!

Aaron Camens

Yes we have, this is actually the cheekbone of a wombat and if you look very closely you can see
these parallel grooves in it that were probably from a Thylacoleo. You can see these great big
shearing teeth would have bitten down on it.

Dr Paul Willis: Ouch!

NARRATION:

These footprints talk about a very different Australia than the one we know today. But just as
these extinct creatures have left their footprints in the history of time, it makes you wonder what
kind of footprint we're going to leave behind.