AusSMC: Discovery of first large Australian dinosaurs in 28 years

New research published in PLoS ONE today (Fri 3 July) describes the remains of three new species of dinosaur: two giant herbivores (sauropods) and a carnivore (theropod) found during digs in the Winton Formation of central Queensland.  They are the first large Australian dinosaurs to be discovered since 1981.  The authors of the paper are from the Queensland Museum and the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum of Natural History based near Winton in central Queensland.

Silhouettes of the three new dinosaurs showing the material currently known from their respective holotypes. - PLoS
Silhouettes of the three new dinosaurs showing the material currently known from their respective holotypes. - PLoS

The Australian Science Media Centre asked several Australian experts in palaeontology respond to the paper.

The full PLoS media release is included below (after the expert quotes).

Click here to read the paper.

Dr John Long, a paleontologist and Head of Sciences at Museum Victoria, comments:

“Wow! This is amazing stuff. I would regard the paper by Scott Hucknull and his team as one of the most significant papers ever published on Australian dinosaurs to date. It not only presents us with two new amazing long-necked giants of the ancient Australian continent, but also announces our first really big predator known from more than scrappy remains – Australovenator. This find also solves an old debate that has been raging since 1981 over Victoria’s ‘Allosaurus’ that is known from a single ankle bone, as it now appears to belong to Australoventor, which shows interesting links to the truly gargantuan group of Gondwana meat-eaters, the carcharodontosauroids.

“This paper puts Australia back on the international map of big dinosaur discoveries for the first time since 1981 – when Muttaburrasaurus was announced.”

Associate Professor Rod Wells, from the School of Biological Sciences at Flinders University, SA. A vertebrate palaeontologist best known for discovering the Naracoorte Caves fossil deposit in SA, he’s an expert in fossil marsupials, and comments:

“Mention the word ‘fossil ‘and the immediate response is ‘dinosaur’.  Children in particular love their dinosaurs, but when we think of dinosaurs we think North America, Europe, South America, Africa, not Australia.  Australia is the exciting new frontier in vertebrate palaeontology, a continent as large as North America awaiting exploration. The dearth of mountain building events on this continent has meant we have no ‘Grand Canyons’ with exposed rock layers spilling fossils; finding fossils in Australia is difficult, time consuming and labour intensive, but the rewards can be outstanding.

“Scott Hocknull from the Queensland Museum and his team of volunteers have shown what can be achieved by involving the community in the excitement of scientific discovery. They have opened a new window on the dinosaur fauna of a ~110 million year old portion of the world that remains largely unexplored, indeed a unique Australian fossil heritage. Their work is an exemplar of what can be achieved with limited resources, making an important contribution to basic science, to science education, as well as to the economy of the local community through the Age of Dinosaurs Museum. I applaud their efforts.”

Dr Ben Kear, a palaeontologist based at La Trobe University in Melbourne and an honorary research associate with the SA Museum, comments:

“Australia is one of the great untapped resources in our current understanding of life from the Age of Dinosaurs. The discoveries of Hocknull and colleagues will definitely reinvigorate interest in the hitherto tantalizingly incomplete but globally significant record from this continent and pave the way for new studies on Australian dinosaurs and their environments.”

Dr Tom Rich, a Senior Curator (Vertebrate Palaeontology and palaeobotany) at Museum Victoria, comments:

“Where the Winton Formation is commonly exposed, there is a layer of black soil typically about one metre thick.  Since at least the 1930s, fossil bones have been found on that surface.  However, they were typically isolated bones and often badly broken.  Digging in the black soil with hand tools is soul-destroying work.  Sort of like digging in a solid mass of rubber.  When people did that in the past, little if anything was found in that layer.  After finally digging through the black soil and into the underlying sandy clays, the fossil bones found were often disappointing.  What Hocknull, the Elliots, and their colleagues have done is to use bulldozers to follow surface traces of bone below the black soil over large areas and then do a lot of digging in the underlying sandy clays.  That strategy involved a lot of hard work and expensive machine time.  It did not pay off immediately.  But it did pay off because they were persistent.  They now have demonstrated the appropriateness of a technique that will no doubt reveal much more about the fossil tetrapods of the Winton Formation in the years to come than has been learned before.  As the previous record of Australian dinosaurs is so meagre, this heralds a real advance in the years to come.

“The three specimens reported by Hocknull and colleagues join less than a dozen others known from this continent from more than a single bone.  The theropod is the first occurrence of that group known from anything more than an isolated element.  The sauropods show a diversity of titanosaurs in Australia.  This group is quite diversified in the Cretaceous of other continents, particularly South America.  And it was to be expected that with further discoveries in Australia, this would be found to be the case here.  Hocknull and colleagues have found the physical evidence demonstrating that this expectation was in fact correct.

“Scott Hocknull was working very closely with David and Judy Elliott of the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum in Winton, Queensland.  All three of them worked closely together for a number of years to bring off this result.  In doing so, they attracted to their project a number of devoted persons who have been critical in their achieving together what they have accomplished.”

Aaron Camens, a PhD research student at the SA Museum and the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Adelaide, whose main research focus is on fossil marsupials, comments:

“Hocknull and colleagues’ discovery is a fantastic new addition to Australia’s Cretaceous dinosaur record. It also opens a new window into our understanding of dinosaur evolution in the Southern Hemisphere. The Winton Formation is the centre of dinosaurian palaeontology in Australia and Hocknull is right in the thick of it. SA has a grand total of three dinosaur bones, I’m packing my bags for Queensland!”

Scott Hocknull, lead author of the PLos One paper from the Queensland Museum comments on the new carnivorous therapod, nicknamed ‘Banjo’.

“The cheetah of his time, Banjo was light and agile. He could run down most prey with ease over open ground. His most distinguishing feature was three large slashing claws on each hand. Unlike some theropods that have small arms (think T. rex), Banjo was different; his arms were a primary weapon. He’s Australia’s answer to Velociraptor, but many times bigger and more terrifying.

“Many hundreds more fossils from this dig await preparation and there is much more material left to excavate.”


RELEASE FROM PLoS  – Triple Fossil Find Puts Australia Back on the Dinosaur Map

Reporting on July 3 in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal, PLoS ONE, Scott Hocknull and colleagues at the Queensland Museum and the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum of Natural History describe the fossils of three new mid-Cretaceous dinosaurs from the Winton Formation in eastern Australia: two giant, herbivorous sauropods and one carnivorous theropod, all of which are to be unveiled in Queensland on July 3. The three fossils add to our knowledge of the Australian dinosaurian record, which is crucial for the understanding of the global paleobiogeography of dinosaurian groups.

Australia’s dinosaurian fossil record is extremely poor, compared with that of other similar-sized continents, such as South America and Africa. However, the mid-Cretaceous Winton Formation in central western Queensland has, in recent years, yielded numerous fossil sites with huge potential for the discovery of new dinosaurian taxa. Between 2006 and 2009, extensive excavations have yielded many well-preserved dinosaur fossils, as well as the remains of other contemporaneous fauna.

In a single, comprehensive, publication, Hocknull and colleagues describe the remains of three individual dinosaur skeletons, found during joint Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum and Queensland Museum digs in two different sites in the Winton Formation. They represent three new genera and species of dinosaur: two giant herbivorous sauropods and a carnivorous theropod.

The carnivore, named by the authors on the paper Australovenator wintonensis (nicknamed “Banjo”) is the most complete meat-eating dinosaur found in Australia, to date and sheds light on the ancestry of the largest-ever meat-eating dinosaurs, the carcharodontosaurs, a group of dinosaurs that became gigantic, like Giganotosaurus.

“The cheetah of his time, Banjo was light and agile,” said lead author Scott Hocknull. “He could run down most prey with ease over open ground. His most distinguishing feature was three large slashing claws on each hand. Unlike some theropods that have small arms (think T. rex), Banjo was different; his arms were a primary weapon.

“He’s Australia’s answer to Velociraptor, but many times bigger and more terrifying.”

The skeleton of Australovenator solves a 28-year-old mystery surrounding an ankle bone found in Victoria, which was originally classified as a dwarf Allosaurus, although this classification remained controversial until the discovery of Australovenator-the researchers are now able to confirm that the ankle bone belonged to the lineage that led to Australovenator.

The two plant-eating theropods, named Witonotitan wattsi (“Clancy”) and Diamantinasaurus matildae (“Matilda”), are different kinds of titanosaur (the largest type of dinosaur ever to have lived). While Witonotitan represents a tall, gracile animal, which might have fitted into a giraffe-like niche, the stocky, solid Diamantinasaurus represents a more hippo-like species.

All three dinosaurs are nicknamed after characters from a world-famous, Australian poet. Banjo Patterson composed Waltzing Matilda in 1885 in Winton, where the song was also first performed (and where the fossils were discovered). Waltzing Matilda is now considered to be Australia’s national song.

In a quirky twist of fate, the song Waltzing Matilda describes the unfortunate demise of a swag-man, who steals a jumbuck (sheep) but is driven to leap into a billabong (an Australian word for a small oxbow lake) to avoid being captured by the police. He ends up drowning in the billabong alongside the stolen sheep.

Banjo and Matilda were found buried together in what turns out to be a 98-million-year-old billabong. Whether they died together or got stuck in the mud together remains a mystery; however, echoing the song, both predator and possible prey met their end at the bottom of a billabong, 98 million years ago. This shows that processes that were working in the area over the last 98 million years are still there today. “Billabongs are a built-in part of the Australian mind,” said Hocknull, “because we associate them with mystery, ghosts and monsters.”

The finding and documentation of the fossils was a 100% Australian effort. Both Matilda and Banjo were prepared by Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum thanks to thousands of hours of volunteer work and philanthropy.

“This is the only place in Australia where you can come off the street and be taught to be a palaeontologist and find, excavate and prepare your own part of Australian natural history,” said Hocknull. The dinosaurs will now be part of a museum collection and this effort will enable future generations of scientists to be involved in a new wave of dinosaur discoveries and to bring the general public in touch with their own natural heritage.”

This collaborative effort links closely with PLoS ONE’s philosophy of making science freely accessible to the general public. “One of my major motivations for submitting to PLoS ONE was the fact that my research will reach a much wider community, including the hundreds of volunteers and public who gave their time and money to the development of natural history collections,” said Hocknull. “They are the backbone of our work (excuse the pun) and they usually never get to see their final product because they rarely subscribe to scientific journals.”

All three new taxa, along with some fragmentary remains from other taxa, indicate a diverse Early Cretaceous sauropod and theropod fauna in Australia, and the finds will help provide a better understanding of the Australian dinosaurian record, which is, in turn, crucial for the understanding of the global palaeobiogeography of dinosaurian groups.

The authors agree that even though hundreds of bones have already been found at the site, these fossils are just the tip of the iceberg. “Many hundreds more fossils from this dig await preparation and there is much more material left to excavate,” they said. Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum and Queensland Museum staff and volunteers will continue to dig at this and other sites in 2010.

The fossils will be unveiled at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum of Natural History in Queensland, Australia, July 3 by Anna Bligh, the Premier of Queensland. Stage 1 of the museum, a non-profit, volunteer-driven, science initiative that aims to bring Australian dinosaurs to the world, will also be opened by Ms Bligh on July 3. The full scientific findings are set out in the paper, “New Mid-Cretaceous (Latest Albian) Dinosaurs from Winton, Queensland,” Australia, published July 3 in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE.

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Funding statement: Field and Labwork was funded by the Australian Age of Dinosaurs, Queensland Museum, Australian Geographic and philanthropy. Staff of the Australian Age of Dinosaurs and Queensland Museum assisted in study design, data collection and analysis, and preparation of the manuscript. Other funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Citation: Hocknull SA, White MA, Tischler TR, Cook AG, Calleja ND, et al. (2009) New Mid-Cretaceous (Latest Albian) Dinosaurs from Winton, Queensland, Australia. PLoS ONE 4(7): e6190. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0006190