Australian Fossil Mammal Sites – Riversleigh section, World Heritage Area

We recognise the traditional custodians of the Riversleigh section of the Australian Fossil Mammal sites (lower Gulf region of Queensland)—the Waanyi people, and pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging.

    The Waanyi people know this region as their spiritual and sacred Boodjamulla (Rainbow Serpent) Country and continue to feel a deep sense of responsibility for the safekeeping of this place. The Waanyi people's connection to the landscape is maintained through cultural practice on their traditional homeland—their strong association to this Country was recognised through the determination of Native Title in 2010.

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    The Australian Fossil Mammal Sites consists of two distinct areas listed as a combined World Heritage property—these are the Riversleigh section, north west of Mount Isa in north Queensland, and the Naracoorte section in South Australia.

    Both Riversleigh and Naracoorte are superb examples of the key stages of evolution of Australia’s unique wildlife and meet two of the ten World Heritage criteria:

    1. Outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history
    2. Outstanding examples representing significant ongoing ecological and biological processes.

    The two sites were jointly inscribed on the World Heritage List as the Australian Fossil Mammal Sites (AFMS) in 1994.

    Management of the Riversleigh section of the Australian Fossil Mammal Sites (Riversleigh) is coordinated through a partnership between the Australian Government, the Queensland Government and the Waanyi peoples.

    Riversleigh is mostly within Boodjamulla National Park. See Boodjamulla National Park, for information about Boodjamulla visitor information, including park safety updates.

    • The Australian Fossil Mammal Sites consists of two distinct areas listed as a combined World Heritage property—the Riversleigh section, north west of Mount Isa in north Queensland, and the Naracoorte...

      The Australian Fossil Mammal Sites consists of two distinct areas listed as a combined World Heritage property—the Riversleigh section, north west of Mount Isa in north Queensland, and the Naracoorte section in South Australia. Learn more about why David Attenborough claims Riversleigh to be one of the top five fossil fields in the world.

    First Nations partners

    First Nations occupation dates back at least 17,000 years and may extend beyond 30,000 years. The Waanyi people know this country as Boodjamulla or the Rainbow Serpent Country. They believe Boodjamulla—the Rainbow Serpent—formed the Lawn Hill Gorge area and created the permanent spring water. Lawn Hill Gorge is a sacred place used only for ceremonial and celebratory purposes. The Waanyi believe that if you tamper with the water, pollute it or take it for granted, the Rainbow Serpent will leave and take all the water with him.

    The Waanyi people were hunters and gatherers. Men hunted while the women and children gathered edible plants and fruit. Boomerangs and spears were used for hunting while grass-woven nets were made for catching fish.

    Boodjamulla Country provided plenty of food for the Waanyi people. Their staple diet consisted of fish (wirigatyigatyi), turtle (wabungara), kangaroo (mailadyi), and goanna (dyambapna), and was supplemented with berries, mussels (mulla mulla), pandanus fruit (bulalula), wild banana and cabbage palms cores (wodidy). They used stones to grind lily seeds for damper and used earth ovens (dundee) of hot coals and rocks for cooking.

    During the wet season the Waanyi people would gather under overhanging rocks and in caves, while in the dry months they would camp in paperbark shelters along the creek banks. They made paperbark canoes for travelling short distances and used a shield-shaped wooden dish, called a coolaman, to carry babies, prepare food or to transport fire and food.

    Evidence of Aboriginal occupation can still be found today in the remaining mussel middens, grindstone relics and rock art. Waanyi Elders have interpreted some of these sites, providing visitors with an understanding of their traditional lifestyle.

    Values of the World Heritage area

    Riversleigh was once a lush rainforest scattered with lime mineral-rich freshwater pools. Some of the world’s most outstanding fossils from the Oligocene period to the Miocene period (10–30 million year ago) have been uncovered at Riversleigh. Visitors can discover the unique story of the evolution of Australia’s wildlife by seeing some of these fossilised animals along the walking track at D Site and reading the track-side illustrated signs that tell stories of past prehistoric mega-fauna.

    Riversleigh Open larger image

    D Site

    Photo credit: © Mark Nemeth

    A fossil of a MekosuchusOpen larger image

    A fossil of a Mekosuchus, a goanna-like crocodile that climbed trees

    A fossilised crushed skull of a Baru wickeniOpen larger image

    A fossilised crushed skull of a Baru wickeni, a cleaver-headed crocodile.

    Palaeontological surveys at Riversleigh have uncovered exceptional examples of the evolution of Australia’s wildlife. Fossil discoveries have revealed a deeper understanding of an ancient and mysterious world where carnivorous kangaroos, predatory pouched lions, giant flightless birds and tree-climbing crocodiles once roamed.

    The Barawertornis tedfordi was a huge, cassowary-sized flightless bird. The fossilised vertebra and gizzard stones of an even bigger bird species Dromornis murrayi, affectionately known as ‘Big Bird’, can be seen in a large limestone rock beside the Riversleigh Fossil Trail.

    The 5m-long, cleaver-headed Baru wickeni had huge dagger-like teeth and lived around Riversleigh’s freshwater pools about 16-24 million years ago. A fossilised crushed skull of a crocodile can be seen along the Riversleigh Fossil Trail.

    Wakaleo oldfieldi was a pouched lion about the size of a German shepherd dog. These tree-climbing carnivores had moon-shaped blades on their premolars used for cutting up the flesh and bone of its prey.

    Known as Australia’s killer kangaroo, Ekaltadeta was able to slice through bone as well as muscle, and probably galloped rather than hopped. Ekaltadeta was just one of the strange kinds of kangaroos that lived in Riversleigh’s ancient rainforest.

    Illustrations of mega-faunaOpen larger image

    The ancient and mysterious mega-fauna that once roamed Riversleigh

    Photo credit: © Illustrations by Jane Jehne

    Riversleigh has the richest fossil mammal deposits in Australia and have generously contributed to the world’s knowledge of prehistoric mammal communities.

    Riversleigh’s environment has changed dramatically over time and understanding how these changes occurred and their influence on the animals and plants that lived here, will assist in managing this landscape into the future.

    Visitors can gain further insight about Riversleigh at the Riversleigh Fossil Discovery Centre in Mount Isa.

    A full description of the Outstanding Universal Values of the property, including the criteria and attributes, can be found on the Australian Government website.

    Did you know?

    • A very small marsupial lion Microleo attenboroughi lived and hunted in the wet forests that dominated Riversleigh about 18 million years ago. The house cat-sized mammal was named for naturalist David Attenborough in appreciation of his support for Riversleigh’s World Heritage listing.
    • Riversleigh is regarded as one of the most significant palaeontological sites yet discovered anywhere in the world. Its fossil bat record of 35 species is considered the richest in the world.
    • A near-complete skeleton of a small, fox-sized thylacine, a carnivorous marsupial distantly related to the 'Tasmanian Tiger’ has been found at Riversleigh. It is the only skeleton of a thylacine species other than the Tasmanian Tiger discovered to date. Thylacines were the main mammalian predators, with over ten species known from northern and central Australia.
    • 'Fangaroo' was a small herbivorous kangaroo with huge canine teeth. Perhaps it used them for defence against predators such as the Giant Rat-kangaroo, Ekaltadeta, a kangaroo that ate meat!
    • Mekosuchus was a goanna-like crocodile that climbed trees.
    • Riversleigh was once a very wet rainforest that became more arid as the ancient Gondwanan land masses separated and the Australian continent moved north.

    Management of the Riversleigh section of the Australian Fossil Mammal Site

    Management arrangements for Riversleigh involve the Australian Government, the Queensland Government and the Waanyi people. The Australian Government funds the establishment and operation of an advisory committee.

    Advisory Committee

    Riversleigh has one advisory committee—the Riversleigh World Heritage Advisory Committee (RWHAC). The RWHAC expired on 6 October 2019, and the department is finalising a recruitment process to appoint a new RWHAC. The RWHAC is supported through the department, with funding provided by the Australian Government.

    Advisory committees for World Heritage areas provide advice to the Australian and Queensland Government Ministers responsible for World Heritage matters and assist in meeting obligations under the World Heritage Convention and the Federal Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. These obligations include identifying, protecting, conserving, presenting and transmitting to future generations the Outstanding Universal Value of the World Heritage property.

    The Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service in responsible for the day-to-day management of Riversleigh.

    If you are interested in joining our mailing list to be informed of future opportunities to be involved in the advisory committees or for any further information, email world.heritage@des.qld.gov.au.

    Communiques

    Following each meeting of the Riversleigh World Heritage Advisory Committee, the Chair prepares a communique for the Queensland and Commonwealth Ministers responsible for World Heritage matters.  Communiques outline high-level discussions and key recommendations of committees and since 2016, have been published here as soon as they are available:

    For further information email world.heritage@des.qld.gov.au.

    Resources

    'Riversleigh Rocks' photo competition

    In 2019, a photo competition was held to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Riversleigh’s inscription on the prestigious World Heritage List. See the winning photographs from the ‘Riversleigh Rocks’ photo competition.