Illuminating the evolutionary history of New Guinea’s marsupial herbivores. (APSF 22050)

APSF 22050 | Amount: $44,548 | Project Leader: G Prideaux | Project Period:

A project undertaken at Flinders University, and supervised by Prof Gavin Prideaux.

The large, mountainous island of New Guinea forms the northern portion of the Australian continent, and is home to a varied and unique marsupial fauna, including numerous endemic genera and species. However, remarkably little is known about the evolutionary history of New Guinea’s biota because of the incomplete and understudied nature of the fossil record. Although important discoveries of fossil macropodids (kangaroos) and diprotodontids (large quadrupeds) were made from several late Cenozoic (last c. 7 million years) sites during the latter half of the 20th century, palaeontologists have not visited these for decades or at all.

The majority of remains collected thus far are jaw fragments that provide tantalising glimpses into a herbivore assemblage that shares an ancestry with their Australian counterparts, but has a distinctly different character. The main aim of the proposed study is to improve understanding of the evolution and palaeobiology of New Guinea herbivores by collecting and analysing more fossils from two key localities, and by better determining when deposits formed and the prevailing environmental conditions.

Across three expeditions, we will sample from the late Pliocene (c. 3 million years ago) Otibanda Formation near Bulolo (Morobe Province) and probable late Pleistocene (c. 40 thousand years ago) Haeapugua Basin/Pureni sites near Tari (Hela Province). Herbivores are our primary target, but we will collect fossils of all taxa encountered, in addition to sampling for fossil pollen.

By combining multiple methods, this study will produce a deeper appreciation of the diversity and ecology of New Guinea herbivores through time, and how their adaptive trajectories were shaped by their distinctive environments. An overarching goal is to reboot the discipline of palaeontology in New Guinea, partnering with staff from the Papua New Guinea Museum & Art Gallery and University of Papua New Guinea.