Scientists from Queensland Museum and Central Queensland University have made an exciting discovery of a fossil plant on a site near Gladstone.   

The discovery of the horsetail or puzzle grass specimen is evidence that the plant has survived for at least another 50 million years after it was thought to be extinct in Australia. The tiny specimen was discovered by CQ University Associate Professor Anita Milroy. The fossil is the youngest evidence of the plant group from Australia, and its discovery will help understand the history and distribution of the plant.  

The plant first appeared over 300 million years ago. It was commonly found in the Permian-aged coal mines of Central Queensland that are 240- 250 million years old. Before this discovery, the most recent records of these plants are about 90 million years old and come from the Winton area in western Queensland.  

Horsetails are a distinctive group of plants that are related to ferns and have hollow stems and small leaves arranged in regular whorls on their stem. The modern horsetail plants are now widely distributed in the northern hemisphere, are recognised as being invasive weeds, and are banned in every state of Australia.   

Queensland Museum Acting Head of Biodiversity and Geosciences Dr Andrew Rozefelds said the discovery indicates the plants were still growing here 40 million years ago. “The challenge is to assemble and characterise the traits of these living and fossil plants to better understand the origins and history of this remarkable group,” Dr Rozefelds said. Although the horsetails discovery was unexpected, in the future, more intensive field studies and research will provide additional insights into the history of modern Australian flora.  

Queensland Museum Network CEO, Dr Jim Thompson said the discovery would provide an opportunity to piece together Queensland’s role in the evolution of fossil plants. “It’s exciting to be a part of this fascinating and unique story, and we look forward to sharing more research findings in the future.”   

Future Makers provided support to undertake this initial fieldwork, a partnership between Queensland Museum and Shell’s QGC business as part of the World Science Festival Brisbane 2018 with further fieldwork planned with additional support from QGC.