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

Cramb, Jonathan Andrew (2012) Taxonomy and palaeoecology of Quaternary faunas from caves in eastern tropical Queensland : a record of broad-scale environmental change. PhD by Publication, Queensland University of Technology.


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 or completely extinct, and the small mammal fauna resembles that found in the area today. The faunal/environmental changes recorded in the Mount Etna sites were interpreted by previous workers as the result of shifts in climate during the Pleistocene.

Many samples from caves in the Chillagoe/Mitchell-Palmer and Broken River/Christmas Creek areas are held in the Queensland Museum’s collection. These, supplemented with additional samples collected in the field as well as samples supplied by other workers, were systematically and palaeoecologically analysed for the first time. Palaeoecological interpretation of the faunal assemblages in the sites suggests that they encompass a similar array of palaeoenvironments as the Mount Etna sites. ‘Rainforest’ sites at the Broken River are here interpreted as being of similar age to those at Mount Etna, suggesting the possibility of extensive rainforest coverage in eastern tropical Queensland during part of the Pleistocene.

Likewise, faunas suggesting open, dry palaeoenvironments are found at Chillagoe, the Broken River and Mount Etna, and may be of similar age. The 'dry' faunal assemblage at Mount Etna (Elephant hole Cave) dates to 205-170 ka. Dating of one of the Chillagoe sites (QML1067) produced a maximum age for the deposit of approximately 200 ka, and the site is interpreted as being close to that age, supporting the interpretation of roughly contemporaneous deposition at Mount Etna and Chillagoe. Finally, study sites interpreted as being of late Pleistocene-Holocene age show faunal similarities to sites of that age near Mount Etna.

This study has several important implications for the biogeography and phylogeography of murine rodents, and represents a major advance in the study of the Australian murine fossil record. Likewise the survey of the northern study areas is the first systematic analysis of multiple sites in those areas, and is thus a major contribution to knowledge of tropical Australian faunas during the Quaternary. This analysis suggests that climatic changes during the Pleistocene affected a large area of eastern tropical Queensland in similar ways. Further fieldwork and dating is required to properly analyse the geographical extent and timing of faunal change in eastern tropical Queensland.

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ID Code: 59971
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD by Publication)
Supervisor: Baker, Andrew, Webb, Gregory, & Hocknull, Scott
Keywords: cave, Quaternary, rodent, dasyurid, climate change, Chillagoe, Broken River, Mount Etna
Divisions: Past > Schools > Biogeoscience
Past > QUT Faculties & Divisions > Faculty of Science and Technology
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 13 May 2013 05:42
Last Modified: 03 Sep 2015 04:46

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