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Age of Fishes close up of fossils
Age of Fishes fossils
Photo Evolving Images. Photo Courtesy Destination NSW

Age of Fishes Fossil Museum at Canowindra

Latitude -33.562156, Longitude 148.660441

Located in the Central West area of NSW, just north of Cowra

Corner of Gaskill St and Ferguson Street (PO Box 360), Canowindra, NSW, Australia.

Link to Detailed Map

Although Canowindra is known as the Balloon Capital of Australia it boasts an even more internationally significant attraction: a unique fossil fish site with no as yet discovered worldwide equivalent. The Age of Fishes Museum houses a sample of the fossils from this site.

150 million years before dinosaurs roamed the earth, almost all backboned animals were aquatic and spent their entire lives underwater. This era is known as the Devonian Period or the "Age of Fishes".

A chance find at Canowindra in 1956, and a major excavation of the same site in 1993, uncovered a remarkable fossil site. It contained the well preserved fossilised imprints of thousands of bizarre, long-extinct fishes encased in bony armour, other fishes with lungs and huge predators with crocodile-like jaws: many of the fish discovered at the site were new to science.

Fossil remains of fish species' Bothrioiolepis, Remigolepis and Groenlandaspis were found at the Canowindra site and have been found in Late Devonian rocks on most of the world's widely scattered continents. Such finds support the theory that the Earth's continents were once grouped together to form the super-continent Pangea which later broke up into the smaller supercontinents Laurasia and Gondwana.

The Canowindra fossils are dominated by two kinds of strange armoured fishes belonging to a long extinct group of placoderms. Bothriolepis and Remigolepis had paired fins which were encased in bony plates and hinged to the trunk armour.

Some less common fossils found at Canowindra are the Sarcopterygians, such as Canowindra grossi, Mandageria, Cabonnichthys, Gooloogongia and Soederberghia, a lungfish. The Canowindra grossi, the first Sarcopterygian found at Canowindra, is still only known from this one specimen.

The 4,000 odd fish specimens recovered so far from the Canowindra site represent at least eight species, most of them previously undiscovered. The largest are the air-breathing, lobe-finned Sarcopterygians, a group that included the first vertebrates to invade dry land - tetrapods: the ancestors of all four-limbed vertebrates, including humans.

The five types of Sarcopterygians, the unique and exquisite specimen preservation and the abundance of fossils make this one of the world's great fossil sites. Thousands of specimens remain buried at the original site, awaiting excavation: these may well include skeletons of early amphibians. We can only guess at the kind of catastrophic event that caused this mass fish extermination some 360 million years ago.

The amazing chain of events which led to the discovery of this great fossil find imply great serendipity. In 1955, an observant road-worker saved a large slab of rock with strange markings on its underside by pushing it to the side of the road. Little did he know at the time that this action would lead to the discovery of one of the world's greatest fossil deposits

Later, a local apiarist recognised the rock's scientific significance and wrote to the Australian Museum in Sydney. In 1956, Harold Fletcher, the museum's palaeontologist, and Dr Ted Rayner, from the NSW Department of Mines, visited the site. Amazed to find the moulds of more than 100 complete Devonian fossil fish on that rock, they decided to take it back to Sydney where it went on public display at the Australian Museum in 1966.

In 1973 Dr Alex Richie, the Australian Museum's new palaeontologist, set out to try and re-locate the Canowindra fossil site. Twenty years later, in 1993, with the support of Cabonne Council and the local community, he succeeded.

Thanks to the efforts of these men and many others, the Age of Fishes Museum at Canowindra houses some of the best examples of fish fossilisation and also offers a variety of education programs for guests. Visitors can take an audio-guided tour, enjoy a picnic, visit the gift shop, stroll along the geological time walk, enjoy a game of "Fishes and Rods" and much more.

Sir David Attenborough visits Canowindra

Naturalist and wildlife broadcaster Sir David Attenborough has described a collection of Australian fossils as "world class".

On a break from his two week speaking tour around the country, Sir David was taken to a site in NSW's central west where hundreds of ancient fish perished at the bottom of a small lake 360 million years ago.

The Age Of Fishes Museum was delighted to host Sir David for his visit. Sir David Attenborough said this was arguably one of the country's most impressive fossil deposits.

Sir David Attenborough examines fish fossils

Getting There

Canowindra is an attractive country town with a delightful olde world shopping centre, featuring several specialty and antique shops, plus cafes and pubs. The main road in the town centre is quite unique as it is formed in a dog leg shape, following an old bullock-team track. Amenities include a motel, several hotels and guest houses, a caravan park, swimming pool, Bowling, Golf and Services Clubs as well as several well-maintained parks, ideal for picnics.

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