Bone dry Barwon River reveals prehistoric bones and fossils

One of the bones Allan Tighe found which belongs to megafauna. Photo: Allan Tighe Snr

One of the bones Allan Tighe found which belongs to megafauna. Photo: Allan Tighe Snr

There may be no water, but a Walgett man has managed to find one positive to come from the 'bone' dry Barwon River.

Over the past six weeks, Allan Tighe Snr has taken advantage of the dry riverbed near Walgett and has come across dozens of bones and fossils.


One of his most significant findings was two large vertebra, which archeologists and palaeontologists from the University of New England believe is from the extinct goanna, Varanus priscus, more commonly known as Megalania.

"Megalania was much bulkier than a goanna you might see in Australia today, more similar in build to the Komodo Dragon, and was much, much larger - around six metres in length and weighing as much as a midsize car," UNE paleontologist Michael Curry said.

"Like other goannas, Megalania would likely have had venom secreting glands around its serrated, knife like teeth - making it one of the most formidable land predators to have lived in Australia since the dinosaurs.

"Megalania roamed the bush from about two million years ago, and became extinct sometime in the last 50,000 years; so the first people to arrive in Australia would almost certainly have encountered them.

"These lizards would easily have been able to kill and eat a human, and would have been dangerous and difficult to defend against. There is evidence that changing climate during the early spread of people in Australia, along with pressure from changing land use and hunting contributed to its extinction."

Mr Curry said Allan's find is very rare and the first discovery of megafauna on the Barwon River.

"Finding isolated Megalania bones is uncommon, but finding multiple bones from the same individual, as we think Allen's find represents, is rare," he said.

"Work is continuing to formally identify these bones and trace the origin of these fossils in the surrounding soil; promisingly, more bones that may be attributed to the same animal have since been found.

"Finding even a partial skeleton of Megalania would be a first, and significant addition to our knowledge of the animal, helping us to better understand both the story of human arrival in Australia and the ecology of Australia before that time."

The bones Allan has found belong to megafauna like these.

The bones Allan has found belong to megafauna like these.

Since Allen's first find, both he and the team from UNE have located isolated bones from other extinct animals which were alive at the same time as Megalania.

These include Phascolonus, a 300kg wombat; Protemnodon, a wallaby around twice the size of a modern grey kangaroo; and Diprotodon, a grazing, herbivorous relative of wombats and koalas that was around the size of a rhinoceros.

"Some of these bones suggest they were sitting in still water close to the time that the animal died, so the area might have been a swamp or lake," Mr Curry said.

Mr Curry said these bones have only been discovered now as a result of the current drought and dry river.

"The Barwon River has had some water flow for most of the past century, but the current drought and changed water use upstream in the Barwon mean that even the deeper pools have dried out, and some of the weeds and vegetation have died back considerably," he said.

"Allan has been walking many kilometres of the dry riverbed in some pretty remote country, and he has a keen eye for unusual objects.

"These bones would have been underwater and well hidden up until very recently.

"'Citizen scientists' like Allan are critical in helping us discover these objects, many of our most important fossil discoveries in Australia have initially been found by members of the public."

Ever since the river has dried up, Mr Tighe has been digging at various sites to see what he can find.

"The archeologist said I've found more bones in six weeks than they have in 34 years," he laughed.

"He said, 'how are you finding so much?' and I told him you've got to look for dark colours, that's how I've spotted everything."

Mr Tighe's latest discovery was an intact skeleton, just under a metre in length, which Facebook commentators assumed to be some type of prehistoric fish.

"It was sitting out one end of a waterhole," Mr Tighe said of his find on Wednesday afternoon.

Mr Tighe believes the skeleton may have been only eight or nine days old.

"It's still got sinew on it," he said.

"I think something killed it."

Mr Tighe originally believed the skeleton belonged to a prehistoric or rare type of fish, however the team at UNE have since confirmed that it belongs to an eel-tailed catfish, which are in fact native to the Murray Darling Basin.

"It's weird looking; it looks like a dragon," Mr Tighe said.