The Fossil Cliffs at Maria Island, 1920 (AOT, PH30/1/2784)

Tasmania has rocks of most ages during which obvious life existed and they tell the age of the rocks, of the environment in which they formed, how modern life evolved, and of changes in life and its environment over time. Over most history, Tasmanian fossils are very like those of once-adjacent Gondwanan continents. The presence of fossil marine life in the Central Highlands raised the issue of 'how can this be?' when this was becoming a global question.

Robert Brown, the well-known botanist, collected brachiopods from Middle Arm or southern Mount Wellington, and this became the first formally described fossil from Australia (Trigonotreta stokesi Koenig). Professor William Buckland of Oxford, after whom the town is named, referred to silicified brachiopods from Tasmania. Labillardière found coal in Recherche Bay in 180304.

Late Carboniferous (290 million years) rocks of north-western Tasmania contain a very large insect (Psychroptilus burrettae Riek) with a wingspan of 50 mm. Permian rocks yielded the spherical organism Tasmanites, which is now recognised globally and was a source of hydrocarbons during the world wars. The large fossil bivalve Eurydesma is so abundant that it was used as a source for lime.

Triassic rocks have representatives of fossil amphibians, reptiles and plants so well preserved that studies of leaf details allow detailed estimation of climate at the time.

In 1831, William Nicol, developer of the Nicol prism, conducted microscopic examination of fossil wood from Tasmania, and a large piece of fossil wood from Macquarie Plains featured at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Fossil Bluff near Wynyard has yielded a fossil wombat (Wynyardia) and a complete ancient whale (Prosqualodon). Welcome Swamp contains large extinct Pleistocene vertebrates such as Diprotodon.

Patrick Quilty