In the wake of the catastrophic asteroid impact believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs, Australia was set adrift on a lonely voyage across southern seas. With host Richard Smith, NOVA travels the walkabout continent to uncover how it became the strange land it is today. In this final episode, "Strange Creatures," NOVA traces the last 65 million years, revealing the events that shaped the Australia we know today. Prehistoric jungles retreated, replaced by eucalypt forests, grasslands, and deserts. When humans first arrived, giant marsupials dominated the land and the Great Barrier Reef was yet to form. This is a tale of calamity and conquest; how a conspiracy of climate, biology, and geology shaped the Earth we now call home.
Australia's First 4 Billion Years: Strange Creatures
PBS Airdate: May 1, 2013
RICHARD SMITH (Biologist): Over four billion years in the making, an island adrift in southern seas: it's Australia, the giant down under; a young nation with all the gifts of the modern age, but move beyond the cities and an ancient land awaits, one nearly as old as the earth itself.
Australia is a puzzle, put together in prehistoric times. And the clues that unlock the mystery can be found scattered across Australia's sunburnt face.
I'm Richard Smith, and this is an amazing country. I'll show you that every rock has a history, every creature a tale of survival against the odds. Join me on an epic journey across a mighty continent and far back in time.
Of all continents on Earth, none preserved the great saga of our planet and the evolution of life quite like this one. Nowhere else can you so simply jump in a car and travel back to the dawn of time.
In this episode: with dinosaurs dead and gone, Australia set sail for the modern world. Isolated and alone, life leaps into some unusual territory. We're uncovering lost worlds and subterranean death traps.
Blimey this tight!
An exotic band of castaways ruled this faraway land, until we turned up.
From Australia's ancient stones comes the story of our world: Australia's First 4 Billion Years: Strange Creatures, right now, on NOVA.
So far, our travels down Australia's road of time, have taken us from the very formation of the earth, through the forging of the continent, to the origin of the life and the conquest of the land.
G.P.S. VOICE: Your destination is the Present Day.
RICHARD SMITH: But it's only now, as we race towards our modern world, that the familiar face of Australia is finally revealed. This is the story of how an island continent became isolated from the rest of the world and how the life aboard this wandering ark adapted to a changing landscape. But it's a rocky road we travel. When the age of the dinosaurs came to a dead stop, 65-million years ago, a great darkness settled over the planet, and the whole course of evolution shifted.
When the skies began to clear, in the first grim days of the Paleogene, most of the great Cretaceous forests were gone. But life on Earth is tenacious. Ferns were quick to take advantage of the new world, colonizing what was left of the damaged forests of Australia, Antarctica and New Zealand. And following closely behind the ferns, a remarkable Australian tree made a dramatic comeback in the post-apocalyptic world.
This is its microscopic seed, found fossilized amongst the fern spores, just above the level of the asteroid debris that marks the last days of the dinosaurs. Like a B-grade monster, this is a tree that is hard to kill. It's the Huon pine. Every branch that falls can re-sprout from the ground. This entire tangled glade is a clone from a single, original, ancient tree.
Now, the Huon pine is more than just one of Australia's great Gondwanan survivors, this particular tree is thought to be Australia's oldest living organism.
It's been growing on this same spot—the cold wet, windy slopes of Mount Read, in Tasmania—for over 10,000 years.
But while life was on the rebound, the supercontinent Gondwana was in its death throes, and the consequences for Australia would be dramatic. India and New Zealand had already slipped away, now Antarctica and Australia were being torn apart. First, a great rift valley opened up and widened, then Australia and Antarctica started to unzip from the west. A trickle became a flood, as a new southern ocean surged into the gap between the separating lands. Only Tasmania stood firm, holding the two continents together.
Today, Tasmania wears its war wounds with pride. For over a hundred-million years, intruding molten rock had been forcing its way upwards, looking for a weak spot. This is the volcanic dolerite rock that now dominates Tasmania. There's more of this rock here than anywhere else on Earth. Towering dolerite sea cliffs guard the coast. Dolerite punches through the highlands, and the rock glowers over the capitol of Hobart, itself, all indelible evidence of the dying days of Gondwana.
This was a torrid time across the planet. Although much of the Australian landmass still lay within the Antarctic Circle, the climate was warm rather than polar, thanks to a sudden surge of greenhouse gases that peaked around 55-million years ago.
In this steamy world, the conifers that had dominated the forests of the dinosaurs were now being replaced by broad-leafed, flowering rainforest trees. Some live on, here, in Tasmania's forests. These leaves belong to a characteristic Gondwanan tree, the southern beech tree, Nothofagus. You can still find Nothofagus on the Australian mainland, in South America and even Antarctica, as fossils. They're a reminder of the days when Tasmania was holding the last of the Gondwanan brotherhood together.
At the time, you could have walked all the way from Australia, via Tasmania and Antarctica, to South America, without ever leaving the green embrace of the great Gondwanan forest. And it was through this green transantarctic highway that marsupial mammals scurried out of the forests of South America and onto Australian soil.
Marsupials, mammals with a pouch to carry their young, now dominate Australia. But marsupials were neither the first nor the only mammals in the country. They found themselves mingling with the monotremes, curious furry enigmas, like the platypus, that still laid eggs, a legacy from their distant reptilian ancestors. Only two types of monotreme live on our planet today, and they are both a little peculiar.
Now, this little guy, of course, is a truly famous Australian: the echidna or Tachyglossus, and it was, was one of the true survivors, for the early age of mammals. And we know that because it lays eggs, like the platypus.
He's tunneling to China, I think.
But there's another group of survivors from those Mesozoic times, with even closer reptilian affinities than the echidna, and they still inhabit the forests of their forbearers.
One type of feathered dinosaur did survive the great extinction. Today, we call them birds. Come eye to eye with the flightless cassowary, and the close family connection is hard to miss. While cassowaries owe their existence to the dinosaurs, the rainforests of tropical Queensland owe their existence to the birds. It's a chain of connection that links down through time, all the way to the Hewett family, modern human residents of the ancient rainforest at Cooper Creek. The cassowary has evolved to become a modern distributor of forest fruits and seeds, a job likely first done by herbivorous dinosaurs.
NEIL HEWETT (Cooper Creek Wilderness): This is the cassowary plum. The cassowary is the only animal large enough to be able to swallow this fruit whole and, in doing so, increase its germination rate from seven percent to an ultimate 92 percent.
RICHARD SMITH: In a complex relationship, with a mutual advantage, at least 37 species of rainforest tree rely on the cassowary for dispersal. It's a big job, but someone's got to do it.
Neil Hewett makes a living here, too, sharing the rich botanical heritage of his 130-million-year-old back garden with visitors like me.
NEIL HEWETT: Here in the Cooper Valley is the world's richest diversity of primitive flowering plant families found anywhere on the planet.
RICHARD SMITH: These rainforests are extremely old, far older than the Amazon, and probably the oldest continuously surviving jungle in the world. Today, they cover less than one percent of the surface of Australia.
It seems hard to believe that, for so many millions of years, most of this now-arid continent was festooned with forests of almost unimaginable richness. All that changed the moment that Tasmania finally let go of Antarctica. And with the apron strings torn asunder, sometime between 30- and 40-million years ago, Australia sailed free from the rest of the world.
When not only Australia but the Patagonian tip of South America also let go of Antarctica, cold ocean currents were able to sweep freely around the southern continent for the very first time, and Antarctica's fate was sealed. Encircled by icy currents, Antarctica and all who sailed on her began to freeze solid.
Australia, loaded to the gunnels with Gondwanan refugees, set course for the tropics: a raft of life, adrift on a sea of change.
And as it drifted, it dried. It was more than a passage into warmer climates, the freezing of Antarctica had taken much of the planet's available fresh water with it. This was the trigger for one of the planet's great biological experiments. Isolated and alone now, Australia's plants and animals began taking on their own unique identity. A remarkable rocky record of this defining moment has been found at Riversleigh, in North West Queensland.
When the fossil window reopens in the rugged limestone hills here, it opens with a bang.
For prehistoric animal hunters, like Mike Archer, Riversleigh is one of the richest caches in the continent.
MIKE ARCHER (University of New South Wales): We know nothing about Australia's mammals, right through the period when Australia separated from Antarctica at 35-million years ago, until, suddenly, the window is thrown open, and there are thousands of fascinating things to look at.
They document the last 26-million years of Australia history in exquisite detail.
RICHARD SMITH: With every fossil-rich boulder recovered, and bone, tooth and jaw released from acid bath, the ancient animals of Riversleigh are telling their own backstory of Neogene Australia. It was in the Neogene that Australia began to show its true colors.
MIKE ARCHER: The beginning of Riversleigh's story was of a rich forest, cool, temperate, permanently wet, no seasons. So we started thinking about this as a kind of a, a green cradle. Here were the first brushtail possums; here were the first ringtail possums; there were the first koalas. All the things people think about today as typically Australian animals had their roots in these ancient rainforests.
RICHARD SMITH: By the time Riversleigh's window into time was closing, around 15-million years ago, the rainforests had begun their long retreat. As the continent edged closer to the equator; the blooms of many new types of flowering plants started bursting out across the land.
Amongst them, a previously low profile, low spreading plant took root: grass. For the first time, extensive grasslands spread out across the continent, ready for the nibbling. Think Australia, and one grass-grazing animal above all others leaps to mind.
TIM FLANNERY (Macquarie University): Kangaroos are the archetypical successful mammal in Australia. They've taken over every ecological niche, from the tropical rainforests, you know, in the treetops there, through to the harshest deserts in Australia. And they do something that no other large mammal does, which is to hop.
RICHARD SMITH: Perhaps the most energy efficient means of forward motion developed by a mammal, hopping allows kangaroos to move vast distances over a tough country. The quintessential Australian they may be, but how did such a biological oddity come about?
TIM FLANNERY: If you can take the bag from me,...
RICHARD SMITH: It's a puzzle that mammalogist Tim Flannery has sought to solve since his early twenties.
TIM FLANNERY: I crawled around on my hands and knees for days on the edge of a salt lake, and I finally picked up this thing that was the size of a match head, really, it was just this tiny bone, and I knew immediately, I put it on my tongue, washed the salt off it so I could see it properly and knew that it was the ankle bone of an ancient, ancient kangaroo, far more primitive than anything that had been seen before.
RICHARD SMITH: Tim had found the missing link between the kangaroos' tree-loving, possum-like ancestors and the ground-dwelling, grass-nibbling hoppers on the country's coat of arms.
TIM FLANNERY: If you look under the microscope, here, you'll be able to see that little stepped facet there. See how it's got, like, a double step on it?
RICHARD SMITH: Oh! Absolutely, it's clear as day.
However small, the shape of this ankle bone is the key to the kangaroo story. With this stepped facet locking the bones closely together, ankle twisting was a thing of the past.
TIM FLANNERY: Kangaroos evolved from possums. Possums need to have a very flexible foot. If kangaroos had an ankle like that, they'd dislocate their ankle every time they hopped. And that stepped structure is what they evolved.
RICHARD SMITH: All of this early ankle experimentation took place in the rainforests of Australia's green cradle. And it's back in the damp jungles of North Queensland that you find the closest surviving relative of the first kangaroo. And here she is: the musky rat kangaroo, the most primitive member of the kangaroo clan and a living fossil. The first thing you'll notice about this busy little girl is the way she moves. No matter how long I sit here, watching her eat food in the forest, she'll never hop. Hopping for kangaroos came later.
Down from the trees and now with improved ankle-bone technology, the first kangaroos were set to make that giant evolutionary leap. And, in many ways, the story of their evolution charts the course of the drying out of the continent itself.
Not only new animals emerged out of this green cradle, the plants were changing too. The old Gondwanan forests shrank steadily back to the country's damp coastal corners, and in their place rose another true Australian original: the gum tree. Now, this is a tree definitely worth hugging. Meet Centurion, the tallest Eucalypt in Australia and the tallest flowering plant in the world. This towering Tasmanian mountain ash, a species of Eucalyptus, has recently been laser-measured at 327 feet high. Only a giant Californian redwood, a conifer, grows taller.
The Eucalypts have come to dominate the country. Gum trees have proven themselves in the toughest environments Australia can throw at them. They laugh off droughts and stand tall in the floods that follow. They soldier on, deep in snowfall, and respond to the perishing heat of a bush fire with a burst of new green growth. These are the trees that love a sunburnt country, and just as well.
About 5,000,000 years ago, desert began to finally claim central Australia. The last vestiges of a jungle flora, now surrounded by a sea of sand and Spinifex grass, found refuge deep in natural soaks and damp gorges. Arid Australia had arrived and so had the Quaternary, the slow drying of the continent that pushed kangaroos out of the trees and onto two legs. But as Australia drifted north, it blocked the flow of moisture to the west, as well, pushing an upright ape to stand tall on the planes of Africa.
But even more change was on its way: the ice ages. While Australia escaped the heavy ice sheets that remodeled the landscapes of the northern hemisphere, these cycles of freezing weather and glaciation sucked even more moisture from the sky. Sea levels dropped dramatically, exposing dry land from New Guinea to Tasmania. Plants grew even tougher and less nutritious. It was a climate change that pushed animals in a radical direction, best seen with a swift decent into South Australia's Naracoorte Caves.
Paleontologist Gavin Prideaux has offered to guide me to the big game of Ice Age Australia.
The ground under Naracoorte is riddled with caverns into which animals have stumbled and fallen to their deaths. As holes to the world above opened and closed, over time, snapshots of a changing land were preserved in the subterranean darkness. In 1969, a team of scientific cavers pushed on into the bowels of the earth here, further than you might think is sensible.
GAVIN PRIDEAUX (Flinders University): This is the famous squeeze.
RICHARD SMITH: So are we going through there?
GAVIN PRIDEAUX: Yes, we are going through there.
RICHARD SMITH: You're kidding me.
GAVIN PRIDEAUX: Nope. Helmet on the side as you come through the tight bit, and then just use your toes to push yourself along.
RICHARD SMITH: Some people do this for fun,…
Blimey, this is tight!
…and it probably is, if you like being the human meat in a mountain sandwich.
GAVIN PRIDEAUX: Through, Richard?
RICHARD SMITH: Oh, right, okay, okay.
Most of the mammals that entered these caves never made it out alive.
GAVIN PRIDEAUX: Well, here we are, Richard.
RICHARD SMITH: The pit of doom.
GAVIN PRIDEAUX: It certainly was.
RICHARD SMITH: When the first cavers emerged into the Victoria fossil chamber, they came face to face with a megafauna graveyard.
GAVIN PRIDEAUX: Megafauna means "giant animals," basically, big animals from the last million years or so. Animals like the diprotodon, about the size of the rhinoceros, probably weighed around two and a half tons.
RICHARD SMITH: Diprotodon, the largest marsupial that has ever lived, raised alongside the largest kangaroos of all time. Procoptodon goliath grew over two meters tall.
GAVIN PRIDEAUX: It all relates to the fact that larger animals have a much lower metabolic rate, that means they can survive on much rougher, less nutritious vegetation, becoming more and more widespread across Australia, as the country dried out.
And, of course, the carnivores, the meat-eaters, get bigger, because the herbivores get bigger.
RICHARD SMITH: This is the skull of Thylacoleo, Australia's marsupial super-carnivore. It had stealth, speed and a bite force without mammalian equal. Thylacoleo was the top mammalian predator in Ice Age Australia, but not for long. A placental mammal made land somewhere on the northern coastline. It didn't fly in, like the bats, or swim, like the rats; this mammal must have come by boat.
The first human footsteps on Australian soil were made somewhere between here in the Kimberley and Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. The people came out of the setting sun, from Indonesia in the northwest, and they came a staggeringly long time ago. Modern science is now able to put dates on the arrival of the first people.
Geochronologist Bert Roberts uses sand grains and laser light to peer back to the start of the human story.
RICHARD "BERT" ROBERTS (University of Wollongong): We are using the very best techniques we can, at the present stage, and we now think that people got to Australia maybe 50,- or 60,000 years ago. And the very earliest occupations took place in the north of the country, maybe through Kakadu, maybe through the Kimberley.
RICHARD SMITH: Wherever those first people landed, they found themselves on a lonely alien coastline. With the oceans rising behind them and a dangerous welcoming committee, they pushed on.
TIM FLANNERY: Once you push your way through the mangroves, you would have found a world unlike anything that you'd seen. There would have been gigantic tortoises with horns like a cow.
GAVIN PRIDEAUX: So, there was a giant flightless gooselike bird, called Genyornis.
BERT ROBERTS: Huge wombats, huge kangaroos, giant echidnas, even giant koalas…
TIM FLANNERY: Sixty species of short faced kangaroos…
GAVIN PRIDEAUX: And giant goannas, about five times the size of a Komodo dragon.
RICHARD SMITH: It was a land of plenty. From the beachheads of the tropical north, it seems the first people spread rapidly south. Following the coast and tracking inland along the watercourses, they penetrated deep into the heart of the continent. Within only a few thousand years, it seems, people were camped by the shores of Lake Mungo, in far western New South Wales.
In 1969, fragments of a cremated skeleton were found weathering out of the bone-dry lakeshore. A second discovery soon followed. With dates firming it around 40,000 years, these are the oldest human remains yet found on the continent, and some of the oldest ritual burials in the world.
NICOLA STERN (La Trobe University): This is bone five.
RICHARD SMITH: The crumbling clay of the prehistoric lake edge is still releasing secrets: animal dinners, cooked on fires amongst the dunes; fragments of stone tools, relics that speak to archaeologist Nicola Stern of distant times, changed climates and a forgotten landscape.
NICOLA STERN: My interest is primarily in the rubbish left behind from people's everyday life. It's a record that spans the entire history of human settlement on the continent, about which we know very little.
RICHARD SMITH: Clues left behind in the lakeside cooking fires paint a picture of lakes brimming with water and fish, fringed with trees and wildlife: a different Mungo from today.
Mungo is a magic, moving place. You can walk on a landscape where people have been leaving footprints for over 50,000 years. There's few places on the planet with such a continual record of human occupation. Half close your eyes, and you can almost hear the sounds of the people camped on the shoreline, enjoying a sunset much like this.
There are other ghosts in this landscape. Even before the first human burials here, the giant animals of the megafauna had disappeared from the continent. The timing alone suggests human involvement, but this remains a scientific cold case, hotly debated.
Some suspect that the shifting Ice Age climate did them in, but the records stored in the bone beds of Naracoorte suggest otherwise.
GAVIN PRIDEAUX: The populations of different species of mammal waxed and waned, if you like, in response to those glacial, interglacial cycles, but nothing became extinct until about the time humans arrived.
RICHARD SMITH: Whatever it was that killed these giant animals, the final desiccating wave of global glaciation was soon making life tough for the humans that survived them. At its peak, around 20,000 years ago, the bountiful land faulted.
Forced back to the security of their lakes, Mungo people marked their passage on the edge of a drying claypan. But these first Australians left behind more than footprints. Rock shelters on the Kimberley coast hold a collection of cultural evolution extending back, it's suspected, as far as the last ice age.
With the arrival of the first people, the story of Australia is written not only in the rocks, but on them as well. Rocks polished smooth by the rub of countless human bodies, an artwork to rival any modern gallery. It's the art gallery that never closed, still cared for by the artists' living descendants, like Wunambal man, Greg Goonack.
GREG GOONACK: Welcome to Wunambal country.
RICHARD SMITH: Pleased to meet you. I'm so glad to be here; it's just so impressive.
This is a collection of artwork that archaeologist June Ross and her team are keen to fully document and date.
JUNE ROSS (University of New England, Australia): It is the story of Australia. It's a story of the people who were here first. The people that lived here, very successfully for thousands and thousands of years. And we are very interested in knowing how they managed to do that.
RICHARD SMITH: Recorded here, are clues to how people adapted to the evolving climate. At least three conspicuously different styles are on display in the caverns. The oldest are slender, elongated figures.
JUNE ROSS: They appear to be floating, almost standing on their toes, like ballet dancers. The thing that fascinates me is all the different hairstyles and headdresses.
RICHARD SMITH: This flamboyant style is then replaced by more business-like figures.
JUNE ROSS: So we think something's happening to the culture, at this particular time. We see a lot more weapons: the barbed spears, the hook sticks.
RICHARD SMITH: Whether or not dating will show this cultural shift was a response to a changing world, an evolving tropical climate certainly influenced the art of the last few thousand years.
RANGER JOHN: Gorlingi, Gorlingi. We come with respect.
RICHARD SMITH: Wanjina figures, like these images of the creator spirit Gorlingi, are strong cultural links to the modern monsoon.
Each Wet bringing new life on the land.
JUNE ROSS: When I arrived at this site for the first time, it took my breath away. And I think it has the potential to answer lots of highly significant questions, not just for Australians, but for the entire world.
RICHARD SMITH: Across the country, aboriginal Australians were witness to extraordinary change. They saw people walk to Tasmania, the last volcanic eruptions on Australian soil and, then, the coming of the Europeans.
When navigator James Cook climbed to the summit of Lizard Island, in 1770, after running aground on Endeavour Reef, he was horrified to find that his ship and crew were trapped inside a coral labyrinth, the extent of which exceeded his worst nightmares: a maze of over 3,000 reefs and islands, extending over 1,200 miles along the coast.
Australia's Great Barrier Reef is probably one of the greatest reef systems the planet has ever seen. But Cook climbed up here for salvation not scenery. He was looking for a way out.
Surprisingly, if Cook had come only about 10,000 years earlier, he wouldn't have seen the reef at all. His view from the coast to the horizon would have been of dry land, because the barrier reef hadn't arrived yet. At the height of the last ice age, sea levels plunged over 300 feet. And the older reefs were left high and dry.
Aborigines would have walked where sharks now swim, hunting kangaroos on hillsides that fish now graze. As the Ice Age waned and the world thawed, the seas rose yet again. Coral larvae drifted in to reclaim the sea floor.
Today's Great Barrier Reef, so big you can see it from space, is a surprisingly new arrival on the Australian stage. And so, for the most part, are we.
In many ways, you can think of James Cook's climb here, to the summit of Lizard Island, as a kind of turning point, the place from where our modern, still-unfolding chapter of Australia's long story began, because it's from here that he spied an escape route back to England, and the modern world soon followed.
It was like a collision of continents, a sudden end to a long isolation. In the blink of a geological eye, humans have altered the continent forever. We've cleared and cultivated the land, losing prehistoric forests and ancient soils in the process. The rest of the word has been brought in with us, in the form of animals and plants, pests and diseases, and much of what did live here has gone.
TIM FLANNERY: Well, in here, Richard, really, is the cabinet of catastrophe.
RICHARD SMITH: Look at them all.
TIM FLANNERY: This cabinet's full of mammal species that no longer exist. What we've got here is a desert rat kangaroo, last seen in 1931, central Australia.
RICHARD SMITH: Beautiful pelt.
TIM FLANNERY: Look at the beautiful, black sub-terminal bands.
These are short faced Pateros, last seen in 1875. This is a pig-footed bandicoot, last seen about 1906, in central Australia.
RICHARD SMITH: And this is the final filmed record of the now extinct thylacine, the largest marsupial predator to make it into modern times.
TIM FLANNERY: The reason it was persecuted, this animal, is because it supposedly killed sheep. We now know that 80 percent or so of the sheep that did die were stolen by convicts. They weren't killed by this animal.
RICHARD SMITH: What the film doesn't show is the moment when, in righteous indignation, the thylacine opened its remarkable marsupial jaws and bit the photographer firmly on his placental rear end.
Many of Australia's marsupials remain at risk.
TIM FLANNERY: This extinction event is equal with the one that happened 50,000 years ago of the giant megafauna. It's on the sort of scale that we see in the great prehistoric extinctions; it's the devastation of the continent.
RICHARD SMITH: As clear as the cosmic dusts marking the last days of the dinosaurs, our indelible radioactive signature is now being recorded in the rocks: the mark of the Age of Man. Around the world, we've become a powerful force of nature, the equal, at least, of any life that has come before.
You shouldn't underestimate the power of life to shape the planet. After all, it was industrious prehistoric bacteria, in the shape of stromatolites, that created Australia's vast iron ore deposits.
And it's us, life in the form of humans, that can shift whole mountains of the stuff to the other side of the world. Each year, humans shift more rock and soil than the flow of rivers and glaciers carries to the sea.
And civilization is on track to burn as much energy each year as is released as heat from within the earth. In doing all this, we alter the chemistry of our thin, precious atmosphere and finite oceans, and the geological extinction record shows we do so at our peril.
We may now hold dominion over the earth, but the planet always wins in the end. Almost nothing we see in the landscape of modern Australia will survive the test of geological time. Eventually, all this will go: the people, the buildings, probably the bedrock itself.
Today's legacies will linger in stories passed down in the rocks that are endlessly recycled and in the genes of living organisms that keep flowing down the road of time. This rhythm of life runs unbroken through the history of the Australian continent.
The first life forms skirted the shoreline here, then they climbed ashore. Now, four-and-a-half-billion years down the road, we've climbed aboard, as well.
We may not know what lies ahead for us, but thanks to some very accurate G.P.S. measurements, we do know where the continent's going. Each year now, Australia and everything on it is moving about the length of my finger, in this direction, towards the northern hemisphere. Sometime in the future, Australia should cross the equator, as it last did half-a-billion years ago. It will once again be part of another great supercontinent,a new world, somewhere in the North Pacific.
Our challenge, in this our geological instant, is to steer a path that does not cut our own future short, and with it that of the many plants and animals along for the ride.
That is what is so remarkable about the age we live in, for the first time in history there is a species on this remarkable walkabout continent that has that choice to make.
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- Mike Archer, Tim Flannery, Neil Hewett, Gavin Prideaux, Richard Roberts, June Ross, Richard Smith, Nicola Stern