The Whitley Medal recognises the best of Australasian zoological literature each year. It is awarded to outstanding publications profiling the unique wildlife of the Australasian region.  

Palaeontologists Professor Mike Archer AM, from the UNSW Earth and Sustainability Science Research Center and School of Biological, Earth & Environmental Sciences, and UNSW Emeritus Professor Suzanne Hand are two of the five co-authors of Prehistoric Australasia: Visions of Evolution and Extinction.

As well as receiving the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales’ Whitley Medal, Prof. Archer and Prof. Hand  also received an additional Special Commendation for their contributions to zoological publication. 

“Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand and our surrounding islands were — and still are — home to some of the world’s most amazing species,” says Prof. Archer. 

The book, published by CSIRO Publishing, covers a wide range of now extinct animals including tree-climbing crocodiles, gigantic venomous lizards, walking omnivorous bats and flesh-eating kangaroos.  

The book challenges simplistic ideas about the nature of extinction as well as the nature of life. It describes the unique, constantly changing environments in this part of the world at key moments in time — starting at 3.5 billion years ago with the first evidence of life on Earth and continuing through to only a few hundred years ago, when megafaunal species vanished. 

“Australia separated about 50 million years ago from Antarctica and the rest of Gondwana to become a biodiverse island drifting northwards through the Indian Ocean,” says Prof. Hand. “As it did so, our region’s creatures evolved in ways not seen anywhere else on Earth.” 

A vivid history

As Australia’s inland deserts spread, restricting lusher forests to the edges of the continent, some groups of animals became enormous — the ‘megafauna’. One of the strangest was the very bizarre, trunked ‘marsupial tapir’, Palorchestes, which had a body length of about 2.5 metres, a weight of perhaps 1500 kg and extraordinarily powerful arms. Although a herbivore, what it actually ate remains a mystery. Peter Schouten

The book features the prehistoric and recently extinct animals in their environments across 100 meticulously painted panoramas by palaeoartist Peter Schouten. 

Peter has been studying, interpreting and rendering Australia’s living and fossil vertebrates for many years. His paintings have long been used to bring extinct animals — in particular, those from Australia — back to life.

“It took us around 10 years to bring this publication to completion,” says Prof. Archer. “And Peter’s paintings are the strong, beautiful horse on the back of which this book rides.”

Looking to the past to save tomorrow

Australia has been home to some of the world’s largest dinosaurs. The 95 million-year-old fossil deposits from Winton, central Queensland, include some of the biggest, such as Wintonotitan (left) and Diamantinasaurus (right). In fact, the biggest dinosaur in the world left individual footprints that are 1.75 metres in length near Broome, Western Australia. Peter Schouten

Prehistoric Australasia: Visions of Evolution and Extinction explores the nature and timing of extinction events in the Southern Hemisphere. Part of the book considers whether some of these losses can be reversed, and how we can use the fossil record – as part of the science of palaeoconservation – to help save today’s critically endangered species. 

“We need to learn from the past to understand the present in order to devise better conservation strategies for the future,” says Prof. Hand.

Climate change is destabilising habitats worldwide, Prof. Hand explains, and conservation-minded palaeontologists are beginning to realise that the fossil record can provide clues about where threatened species might be able to be translocated to survive these changes. 

A future of even more amazing discoveries

385 million years ago, a great barrier reef surrounded the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia. The diverse, very strange fish that populated that ancient reef included Materpiscus (lower left) which globally provides the first evidence for sexual intercourse and live births in animals, and the predatory, tusked Macnamaraspis (upper left) which is now the State Fossil for Western Australia. Peter Schouten

The authors say Australasia has long been an independent laboratory, churning out some of the world’s most distinctive evolutionary innovations. 

Looking back on explosive moments in ‘life’, this region produced some of the most important ‘firsts’ including evidence of life on Earth, undoubted first animals, complex animal communities, sexual intercourse, live births, animals venturing out on land, the world’s largest dinosaurs, most specialised carnivorous mammals, and much more.

“But, as fascinating as the extinct animals are that we have explored in this book, these represent much less than one per cent of the ones we know about now,” says Prof. Archer. “And this is probably less than a millionth of the fascinating creatures that will soon be revealed by future generations of palaeontologists exploring the region.”

The 2023 Whitley Awards were presented in-person at a ceremony at the Australian Museum in Sydney on Tuesday 10 October 2023.