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PhD candidate
Rachel Oertel

I am a PhD student in the Palaeontology lab at Flinders University, beginning my PhD in 2023. I completed a Bachelor of Science (Honours) Enhanced Program for High Achievers at Flinders University from 2017-2020. My love of learning led me to complete a Master of Teaching (Primary) in 2021-2022, as a key goal for my life is to remain passionate about my own learning and hopefully encourage the next generation to do the same.

Having returned to the Palaeontology department, I am expanding on research I completed from my honours which looked at the understudied vertebrate faunal assemblage from the Yorke Peninsula of South Australia called the Curramulka Local Fauna. My honours project examined specimens previously removed from a vast cave system near Curramulka and found several species’ presence crucial for understanding our modern marsupials evolution. Additional research completed in 2021 and 2022, currently being organised for publication by myself and other members of the Palaeontology department at Flinders and other Australian universities, will highlight the significant insight this assemblage could provide about the evolution of Australian marsupials.

My PhD project aims to return to the cave and excavate new material for examination. Preliminary data suggests multiple new species may be present at the site, including koalas, kangaroos, wombats and diprotodontids. Five unique taxa have already been described from the deposit prior to 2020, including the giant koala Phascolarctos yorkensis, giant short-faced kangaroo Archeosimos cegsai, and small thylacine Thylacinus yorkellus. These new species provide a glimpse into the fauna I hope to explore and describe, and highlight how different Australia would have been during the time these animals walked the earth.

My project will attempt to determine the extent of this unknown fauna and draw conclusions on what kind of environment they lived in. It will also explore how the new species impact our understanding of marsupial evolution, as these animals lived in the late Miocene, a time of great aridity, similar to the modern day. This study will involve trips to the cave to collect fossils, treatment of the fossils back in the Palaeolab at Flinders, and a lot of work identifying the new species by comparing them to the vast array of marsupials known from our fossil record. I am excited by the opportunity to learn so much here at Flinders and can’t wait to see where this project takes me.