More about the Fossils Age of Fishes Museum Website

"The Great Canowindra Devonian Fish Fossils"

A chance discovery by a roadworker in 1956 has led, many years later, to one of the worlds great fossil discoveries in central west New South Wales, Australia. The fossils were discovered during the grading of an unsealed road between Canowindra and Gooloogong, when a bulldozer overturned a large rock slab with strange impressions on its undersurface. The slab was pushed aside and saved and later spotted by a local apiarist, Bill Simpson, who recognised the siginificance and informed the Australian Museum in Sydney.

Mr Harold Fletcher the Museum's palaeontologist and Dr Ted Rayner, NSW Mines Department visited the site. The original slab, one of the most remarkable fossil discoveries ever made in Australia, was removed to Sydney, where since 1966 it has been on display in the Australian Mueseum. It reveals dramatic evidence of a unique, mass mortality event around 360 million years ago, in Late Devonian times ( the so called "Age of Fishes" ).

Grossi The original Canowindra slab carried detailed impressions or natural moulds of more than 100 Late Devonian fish, most of the complete. Four types of fish were present. Two strange, long extinct, armoured fish (Bothriolepis and Remigolepis) dominated the fauna; a third armoured fish, Groenlandaspis, was very rare. Also present was the one beautifully preserved specimen of an air-breathing, lobe finned fish (or crossopterygian) later described and named the Canowindra Grossi, after the nearest town and a famous German palaeontologist. During the 1970's and 80's Dr Alex Ritchie, Australian Museum palaeontologist visted Canowindra several times trying to relocate the fish layer, without success. In September 1992, Dr Ritchie gave a talk to Canowindra Rotary on the "Great Canowindra Fish Fossils", stimulating local interest in the site. In January 1993 a trial dig was carried out on the site with the aid of a 22 tonne excavator and its skilled operator, Fred Fewings. In three hours the fish layer was relocated and traced for 20 metres uphill. Fossil fish were abundant throughout, demonstrating the enormous potential of the site.

From 12th to 22 July 1993 the original Canowindra fish site was excavated using the same Caboone Council excavator and driver. The project received full support of the Canowindra community - business people, farmers, truck drivers, teachers, students and local residents etc.

Results exceeded expectations! Some 70 tonnes of fossil slabs were recovered, some weighing more than 2 tonnes. The slabs, now stored in Canowindra on 100 pallets, contain over 3000 fish specimens. Almost all are complete and represent at least 6 specimens, some new to science.

Grossi (
very rare ) lobe-finned crossoterygian fish
Above: Canowindra Grossi (very rare) lobe-finned crossoterygian fish
The recovery of these remarkable fossils is only part of the link of in a unique chain of events which began 360 million years ago when a large lake or river, with tens of thousands of fish living in it, dried up during a severe drought.

The fish tightly concentrated in a small area were rapidly but gently covered with sediment soon after death and before their bony scales and plates fell apart.

Buried deep underground, the sediment turned to rock until some 360 million years later, this unique record of mass-mortality event was brought to the surface again by natural erosion. This happened where a country road intersected the fossil layer, it was pushed aside by the bulldozer driver and then its significance recognised and reported by a sharp eyed apiarist.

One wonders how many other such finds are never seen or reported and are lost to science!

All the new finds remain in Canowindra where they will form the basis of a unique, "Age of Fishes" museum. A Committee of local residents and Cabonne Council representatives is currently working on plans for the Museum seeking and gaining both government and private sponsorship. Canowindra will have the only Musum and Research Facility in the Southern Hemisphere housing ancient fish fossils!

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