Serpent's secrets unearthed on Cape York
GIANT fossilised snake skeletons found on Cape York have revealed new links to the Dreamtime story of the Rainbow Serpent.
Fragments of the giant prehistoric snakes, known by the scientific term madtsoiids, that once slithered the Earth, have been found by cavers and scientists in the secret "fossil gold mines" of the state's deep north.
Dated back to the Pleistocene epoch, between 2 million and 11,700 years ago, the fossils are believed to be akin to those of a constricting python, a predator that grew up to 7m long and as thick as a telegraph pole.
Experts question whether the giant snakes intersected the arrival of the earliest humans and whether the extinct creature is the latest clue into the mystery of the popular Dreaming story of Australian Aborigines.
The Rainbow Serpent is a story of creation, in which a creature of immense proportions moulded the barren earth into mountains, rivers and gorges as it moved across the featureless land.
The serpent's birthplace is said to have been at Mt Mulligan originally known as Ngarrabullgan to the local Kuku Djungan people northwest of Mareeba, and is considered one of the most sacred sites in the country.
Dr Gilbert Price, a palaeontologist at the University of Queensland, works with a team of 10 fellow scientists dedicated to solving the prehistoric puzzle of north Queensland.
"There is so much cool stuff out there that can inform us about past life and climate change," he said.
"It is only a matter of time before we identify entirely new creatures."
Dr Price has obtained specimens of the quinkana, an extinct land-based crocodile; a giant carnivorous kangaroo, propleopus chillagoensis; the 3000kg rhinoceros wombat, diprotodon; giant flightless birds; and carnivorous marsupials like a Tasmanian Tiger once the size of a female African lion.
Some are preserved in stunning detail, such as a fossilised crocodile skull in Tea Tree Cave, the best of its type in Australia, and the skeletons of giant Pleistocene snakes that may be the precursors to the story of the Rainbow Serpent.
"It is a bit of a tenuous link between the fossil record, Rainbow Serpent and earliest humans," said Dr Price.
He said the giant snake wonambi was extinct at least 20,000 years before the first humans turned up in Australia.
More than 600 cave systems have been "tagged" in the Chillagoe area, west of Cairns.
The longest surveyed cave is 14km long and the deepest is 100m underground but there are thousands more north and south.
It is a broken ribbon of sink holes and chasms extending more than 600km on what is reputedly a 350 million-year-old fault line from Laura in the north on Cape York to south of Greenvale, west of Townsville.
Sometimes the caves open up into daylight sections, where a hole has broken open the ceiling.
Often "bone sinks" can be found under these daylight holes, where creatures have fallen in and died and can be found in layers in the sediment, dating back at least 100,000 years.
To a tight-knit clan of scientists, cavers and indigenous elders it is obvious why the exact locations of some sites must be kept secret.
Winfried Weiss, of the Chillagoe Caving Club, said: "Fossils are big business".
"It is kept a secret because a lot of these fossil sites are extremely delicate.
If the location gets publicised, they might be disturbed by amateurs or treasure hunters looking for commercial gain.
There are also sacred Aboriginal sites to be respected.
"We don't want to disturb the scientific potential this place has to tell us about the past."
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Prehistoric puzzle: Palaeontologist Dr Gilbert Price with a fossil recovered from a cave site west of Townsville. Picture: ALAN PRYKE