Dazzling Diprotodon discovery in the Pilbara’s red dirt

"... we were amazed to see bones everywhere. At that point we knew we weren’t just dealing with one isolated skeleton – we had a major discovery."

Dr Kenny Travouillon, WA Museum Curator of Mammalogy (Mammals) and dig team leader

"... our workforce from across the departments were really keen to get involved."

Rob Newton, Head of Corporate Affairs, CITIC Pacific Mining

"CITIC Pacific Mining's support made a fieldtrip possible that is important for Western Australia and the global scientific community as a whole."

Coralie Bishop, CEO, Foundation for the WA Museum

When scientists from the Western Australian Museum go on field trips searching for fossils, conditions can be very harsh. Remote locations, no power, no water and virtually no phone or internet coverage mean that planning and bushcraft are essential to ensure that the dig team is fully self-sufficient and safe for the duration of the trip. All this, and fossil finds are in no way guaranteed. The situation at the fossil dig that took place in October 2023 in the Pilbara could not have been more different.

The WA Museum’s dig team – three WA Museum staff along with five research associates and volunteers – travelled to Du Boulay Creek, near CITIC Pacific Mining’s Sino Iron Mine, to recover several rare and nearly complete Diprotodon skeletons. Diprotodons are extinct marsupials, related to koalas and wombats. 

This megafauna species is the largest known marsupials that ever lived, reaching weights of 2,800kg. The fossil site at Du Boulay Creek is unique in that several individuals were located close to each other. The skeletons, including sections of skulls, jaws and teeth, were embedded in the hard rock of the creek bed and partly visible. 

According to Dr Kenny Travouillon, WA Museum’s Curator of Mammalogy (Mammals) and leader of the dig team, the significance of this fossil site can’t be overstated. “When the Museum returned to the site in 2022 after over 30 years, we were amazed to see bones everywhere. At that point we knew we weren’t just dealing with one isolated skeleton – we had a major discovery.” 

Dr Gilbert Price, Associate Professor of Palaeontology at the University of Queensland, who provided expert assistance to the dig team, explained, “It’s the eco system we’re interested in.” 

“The type of eco system we are seeing preserved here is like a mangrove community. That is an absolute unknown – not only for the Australian continent, but I am not aware that this kind of environment, where there is a mangrove swamp with land-based animals preserved in it, has been described anywhere on the planet. This site is a real treasure – not only for Western Australia, but for the entire continent.” 

However, the Diprotodon fossils are at risk of heavy abrasion and erosion from flooding. The race was on during the dig to recover the best skeletons, so that they can be preserved and studied for the benefit of the Western Australian community. 

Given the site’s proximity to Sino Iron - Australia’s largest iron ore value adding operation - CITIC Pacific Mining formally partnered with the WA Museum and the Foundation for the WA Museum to provide logistical support including accommodation, transport and equipment. 

“CITIC Pacific Mining’s Sino Iron mine is not very far away at all from Du Boulay Creek. We’re so close – we have the accommodation, we have the transport, and we have the logistics to be able to provide support for an endeavour like this”, commented Rob Newton, CITIC Pacific Mining’s Head of Corporate Affairs. “When we were approached by the Museum, we jumped at the opportunity to form a partnership to enable this dig to go ahead.” 

“We have always known the Cape Preston is a wonderful natural environment. This dig really offered a new insight into what happened tens and hundreds of thousands of years ago, when this environment probably looked completely different.” 

“There were about three, four, maybe five departments – our Environment team, our Heritage team, and Site Services - involved in this project and putting together the logistics to enable the dig team to come to site for a 10- 12 day dig. It was a huge undertaking over a long period of time, in addition to their daily tasks, but there was certainly no shortage of volunteers. It was something a little bit different and very interesting - something that our workforce from across the departments were really keen to get involved in.” 

CITIC Pacific Mining also facilitated a site visit from school students from St Luke’s, Karratha Senior High School and the Clontarf Indigenous Academy in Karratha. The students were given the once-in-lifetime opportunity to be part of a fossil excavation, just when they are thinking about what career or higher education path to pursue. 

As Rob Newton explained, “The partnership with the Museum and the Foundation is highly valued. It’s an opportunity to provide education to local schools and the wider community by unlocking the secrets of what happened here at Cape Preston all those years ago.” 

The Foundation for the WA Museum CEO Coralie Bishop added, “We are extremely grateful to CITIC Pacific Mining for being the Museum’s partner ‘on the ground’ in the Pilbara. Their support made a fieldtrip possible that isn’t only important for the local community in which CITIC Pacific Mining operates, but for Western Australia and the global scientific community as a whole.”

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