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Early Australians May Have Lived With Giant Lizards

Researchers discover early Australians shared the continent with enormous lizards

(Frans Lanting/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Stories of giant lizards roaming the Australian outback might seem like just another Bigfoot myth, but newly-discovered fossils suggest that it wasn’t just a tall tale for the first humans to set foot down under.

A group of paleontologists with the University of Queensland were shocked while on a recent dig in Central Queensland, when they discovered fossil fragments from a giant lizard just a few meters below the surface of the earth. When the fossils were finally dated, they realized that the lizard lived about 50,000 years ago – the same time as the ancestors of Aboriginal Australians first arrived on the continent.

"Our jaws dropped when we found a tiny fossil from a giant lizard during a two metre deep excavation in one of the Capricorn Caves, near Rockhampton," vertebrate paleoecologist Gilbert Price said in a statement. "The one-centimetre bone, an osteoderm, came from under the lizard's skin and is the youngest record of a giant lizard on the entire continent."

According to a new study of the fossil fragments, it’s unclear whether the bone shards belonged to a Komodo dragon, which once roamed Australia, or the extinct Megalania monitor lizard, which could grow up to almost 20 feet long and weighed around 1,100 pounds. Whichever giant lizard the bone fragment belonged to, it was an apex predator of some sort that might have existed alongside the early Aborigines, Conor Gaffey writes for Newsweek.

Back during the Pleistocene epoch, which the lizard fossil dates back to, Australia was home to a number of enormous animals roaming the outback: wombats as big as rhinos, massive snakes and seven-foot-tall kangaroos are just some of the animals whose remains paleontologists have discovered in caves across the continent, Joel Achenbach wrote for National Geographic in 2010. But while researchers have long known that humans existed alongside these giant animals, this is the first evidence of a giant lizard living during the same era.

"It's been long-debated whether or not humans or climate change knocked off the giant lizards, alongside the rest of the megafauna," Price said in a statement. "Humans can only now be considered as potential drivers of their extinction."

While many scientists believe that most species of Australian megafauna were wiped out during the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago, some have argued that their extinction was due in part to humans. While it appears that the giant lizards in question died off long before the Ice Age occurred, the fact that it shared the outback with the Aborigines’ ancestors could suggest that they might have been some of the first megafauna to succumb to humanity’s spread across the planet.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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