Tiny fossils, big story! artwork courtesy Peter Schouten.

Beautifully detailed artwork depicting bilbies and bandicoots that inhabited Australia millions of years ago will go on display this week at the Western Australian Museum’s Discovery Zone, in the State Library of Western Australia.

The artwork is part of a display called Tiny fossils, big story! that also features fossil teeth belonging to the now extinct marsupials. The species shown in the artwork are from the Pliocene Epoch of 5.3 million to 2.6 million years ago. Displayed together, the art and the fossil teeth that helped inform it tell a very special evolution story.

“There are very few fossils from the Pliocene and as a result there is much we don’t know about the animals of that time,” WA Museum scientist and Mammals Curator Dr Kenny Travouillon said today. “The most common fossils from small animals are their teeth because the hard enamel casing helps to preserve them.”

The artwork was created by wildlife illustrator and paleo-artist Peter Schouten using information Dr Travouillon gained from studying collections of marsupial fossil teeth housed in museums across Australia, as well as using characteristics of the animals’ more recent relatives.

“As part of my research on Pliocene marsupials I examined fossils from several museum collections, including some recently found in Queensland by some citizen scientists,” Dr Travouillon said.

“Even though some of the fossil groups comprised just a few teeth, studying collections of material generously loaned from Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia enabled me to name four new species.

“Because I had more fossil material to work with, I could look more closely at the fauna from different times and how the climate had changed, and was able to learn much more about the evolution of this group of animals.

“This is incredibly important in helping us to understand how the world, and our place in it, has evolved and clearly demonstrates the value of museum collections in informing current and future scientific research.”

The fossil collections will be returned to the museums that loaned them but until then, they will go on display with the artwork at the Discovery Zone, together for the first time.

“It’s pretty amazing how much we can tell from only a few teeth,” Dr Travouillon said. “Mammal teeth are like a digital print, you can tell species apart from one another, what other species they are related to and also what the animal ate.

“They might not be able to tell us what colour an animal’s fur was, but that inspiration in the artwork came from their descendants and close relatives, and the information we do have about what their habitat was like.”

The animals in the artwork are drawn to life size and situated in an environment they would have belonged to. The shape of the animal is based on living counterparts and knowledge of the evolution of their body shape, using more complete older fossils.

Tiny fossils, big story! is on display at the WA Museum’s Discovery Zone at the State Library of WA, in the Perth Cultural Centre, from 7 July – 8 September 2017. Check the website www.museum.wa.gov.au for Discovery Zone times.


Media contact:
Flora Perrella
Media and Communications Officer
Western Australian Museum (08) 6552 7804