Taxonomy and palaeoecology of Quaternary faunas from caves in eastern tropical Queensland : a record of broad-scale environmental change


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Publication Date

January 2012


Analysis of fossils from cave deposits at Mount Etna (eastern-central Queensland) has established that a species-rich rainforest palaeoenvironment existed in that area during the middle Pleistocene. This unexpected finding has implications for several fields (e.g., biogeography/phylogeography of rainforest-adapted taxa, and the impact of climate change on rainforest communities), but it was unknown whether the Mount Etna sites represented a small refugial patch of rainforest or was more widespread. In this study numerous bone deposits in caves in north-east Queensland are analysed to reconstruct the environmental history of the area during the late Quaternary. Study sites are in the Chillagoe/Mitchell Palmer and Broken River/Christmas Creek areas. The cave fossil records in these study areas are compared with dated (middle Pleistocene-Holocene) cave sites in the Mount Etna area. Substantial taxonomic work on the Mount Etna faunas (particularly dasyurid marsupials and murine rodents) is also presented as a prerequisite for meaningful comparison with the study sites further north. Middle Pleistocene sites at Mount Etna contain species indicative of a rainforest palaeoenvironment. Small mammal assemblages in the Mount Etna rainforest sites (>500-280 ka) are unexpectedly diverse and composed almost entirely of new species. Included in the rainforest assemblages are lineages with no extant representatives in rainforest (e.g., Leggadina), one genus previously known only from New Guinea (Abeomelomys), and forms that appear to bridge gaps between related but morphologically-divergent extant taxa ('B-rat' and 'Pseudomys C'). Curiously, some taxa (e.g., Melomys spp.) are notable for their absence from the Mount Etna rainforest sites. After 280 ka the rainforest faunas are replaced by species adapted to open, dry habitats. At that time the extinct ‘rainforest’ dasyurids and rodents are replaced by species that are either extant or recently extant. By the late Pleistocene all ‘rainforest’ and several ‘dry’ taxa are locally


Cave, Quaternary, Rodent, Dasyurid, Climate Change, Chillagoe, Broken River, Mount Etna