Monday, December 6, 2010

The Australian Age of Dinosaurs is Now

What is happening right now in Australia with dinosaurs is akin to another time and place on the other side of the world: the 19th century and the American West. 
But before getting into the present and the Land Down Under, let’s talk about that previous time and other place. Fossils from Jurassic and Cretaceous rocks of the American West – and dinosaurs in particular – inspired a “dinosaur bone rush” (which involved far fewer people than a “gold rush”) during the late 19th century, from about 1870 through 1895. Two American paleontologists were at the center of this quest into the dinosaurian West, Edward D. Cope (1840-1897) and Othniel C. Marsh (1831-1899).
Edward Cope (left) and O.C. Marsh (right), who discovered a large number of dinosaurs and other fossils during the late 19th century and definitely were not BFF. Image from
For anyone who has read more than a few pages on the history of dinosaur studies in the U.S., these paleontologists’ names are synonymous with the phrases “bitter rivals,” “arch enemies,” “sworn mortal enemies,” and other such clichés normally reserved for comic-book heroes and villains. Yet despite all of the strife, these two paleontologists and their field assistants were responsible for discovering and describing many of the world’s most famous Jurassic dinosaurs, such as Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Stegosaurus, and Triceratops.
A skeleton of Camarasaurus at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. Edward D. Cope named that dinosaur.
A skeleton of Allosaurus at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Othniel C. Marsh named that dinosaur.
This explosion of dinosaur discoveries was unprecedented then, and was only recently surpassed by a second dinosaur renaissanceof the late 20th century. Several books and lots of other documents are out there already about Cope and Marsh’s “bone wars,” which involved back-stabbing, sabotaging, conniving, scheming, plotting, and otherwise unsavory activities. Thus I feel no need to go into the sordid details, and will instead advise the gentle reader to seek further information on this unseemly period of U.S. dinosaur paleontology.
So what does all of this have to do with Australia? Well, I hereby propose that a paleontological awakening similar to what happened in the late 19th century of the American West is taking place right now in central Queensland, Australia. This dawning of paleontological knowledge has been dubbed “The Australian Age of Dinosaurs.” Some of this has already happened in Victoria, Australia, but the largest and most complete dinosaur bones have been coming out of the ground near Winton, Queensland.
It’s a sign that the Australian Age of Dinosaurs is happening near Winton, Queensland.
 A cool-looking “sport ute” like this would never deceive you: the “Australian Age of Dinosaurs” is now and it’s near Winton, Queensland. Did I mention that it’s turbocharged?
However, the biggest difference between the 19th century “bone rush” in North America and its 21st century antipodal version is that the current one is mercifully devoid of competition, infighting, vows of sweet revenge, and other such indecencies. (At least, as far as this naive Yank could tell.) Instead, a visiting paleontologist – let’s say for the sake of argument, me – is greeted by smiling faces, a hearty “G’Day!”, offers to have a “cuppa,” and an eagerness to exchange paleontological discoveries and insights. Such are the advantages of mateship, of which I am a huge fan, and I try to pass on as a  meme here in the U.S. whenever possible.

David Elliott (right) and some other bloke, having a cuppa while chatting about paleontology. Wait a minute - cooperation? What would Cope and Marsh have said about such a crazy concept? Photo by Ruth Schowalter.

Two Australian paleontologists (George and Freddy) about to get into a knock-down, drag-out, full-fledged fight over a dinosaur fossil, a battle waged daily in modern-day Queensland, Australia.
The “Australian Age of Dinosaurs” more or less began in an oddly inauspicious way in 1999 with David Elliott. At that time, David was not trained as a paleontologist, but made his living as an Australian sheep-herder, or “musterer” near Winton. (Sorry, “shepherd” sounds a bit too biblical to me, even if the dinosaurs were of leviathan proportions.) David, while out one day mustering (as opposed to blustering), spotted a large fossil bone in the ground, and promptly said, “Bloody hell!” (Actually not, but that’s what I imagined him saying.)
The bone was a sauropod femur, the first found by anyone in Queensland, and the dinosaur to which it belonged was later nicknamed “Elliott.” One bone was not enough, though, and soon David was joined by his wife Judy Elliott in searching for more bones, and their continued efforts uncovered many more. Judy also started the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Journal, a finely edited (and award-winning) magazine with many great stories about Australian fossils. The Elliotts' mustering then went from sheep to people, who they successfully herded into volunteering time and energy for recovering the bones. They also contacted paleontologists from the Queensland Museum and Univrsity of Queensland, who have been key in making sure the fossils are properly collected, prepared, described, stored, and displayed.
When you find a sauropod dinosaur in Queensland, it’s a big fossil, and a big deal.
A few dinosaurs had been found in the Cretaceous rocks of central Queensland before 1999, namely the beautifully preserved ankylosaur Minmi and the ornithopod Muttabarrasaurus (see a previous entry about the latter dinosaur). Moreover, the area near Winton was already known for its abundant and well-preserved Cretaceous marine reptiles (plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs), introduced to dedicated readers several entries ago.
Nevertheless, no sauropod or theropod dinosaurs were yet known, let alone bones or partial skeletons. The main dinosaur discovery in the area was of thousands of their tracks at Lark Quarry, about 100 km south of Winton, mentioned briefly last week. Hence these first few dinosaur bones were important finds, motivating people to find more. Which they did: heaps of them.
That’s all changed in just the last 10 years. Bones found since 1999 have resulted in three Australian Cretaceous dinosaur species new to science: Wintonotitan, Diamantinasaurus, and Australovenator. Before that, the Elliotts and many supporters gave birth to the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Centre (AAOD), located on a gorgeous mesa (“jump-up”) outside of Winton, which now is the largest fossil preparatory lab in Australia, and possibly the Southern Hemisphere. This is the place where most of these newly found dinosaur bones are stored, prepared, and sometimes molded so that artificial casts can be made.
Behold, a dinosaur bone from Queensland and its molding! Presentation is expertly performed by Trish (“Tricky”) Sloan of the Australian Age of Dinosaurs.
The Australian Age of Dinosaurs Centre, Phase I, in July 2010. Get ready, mates: it’s going to get a lot bigger in the upcoming years.
More importantly for the ichnologist writing this blog, dig-site volunteers over the past few years had collected and catalogued suspected trace fossils, which I was eager to examine. Before Ruth and I had even left Victoria toward the end of field work there, I had written to David and Judy to tell them we would be in the Winton area. I further inquired if we could meet with them, and whether I could take a look at any trace fossils they might have. Fortunately, they did, and they had some very interesting trace fossils there, for sure.
From left to right, Judy Elliott, Trish (“Tricky”) Sloan, David Elliott, and me, as I told them about the time I got in a bar fight in Winton because I was holding a beer with my pinky finger extended. Photo by Ruth Schowalter.
David Elliott (right) and Yours Truly (left) in one of the AAOD storage areas, taking a close look at a rock slab and its trace fossils. Wish I could tell you what they were, but then I’d have to bill you. Photo by Ruth Schowalter.
Suffice it to say that Ruth and I were thrilled to experience the AAOD Centre, meet the people who have made it become a reality (and so successful), and become a small part of its world. Now and the near future constitute very exciting times for dinosaur paleontology in this part of the world. Even better, the science that comes out of here will likely continue to lack the animosities of the 19th century American West, and cooperation will be the key to upcoming success.
Well, except for George, who took full advantage of some handy Australovenator killing claws to take out a rival Yank paleontologist. Either that, or he was already auditioning for Beauty and the Geek.
Never turn your back on an Australian wielding an Australovenator forelimb, especially if you’ve told them about Cope and Marsh and they’re feeling a little inspired by that bit of American history. Photo by Ruth Schowalter.
 Say, that photo looks familiar. Where have I seen that pose before?
This guy really needs to get his nails done. Photo from
Anyway, for Ruth and me, this was a fantastic introduction to some of the exciting new developments in Australian paleontology happening in Queensland.

And with that in mind, we’ll take a closer look next week at the three dinosaur species new to science that came out of this area, and why you really need to know about them. Many thanks to David, Judy, Trish, Freddy, George, and everyone else for their wonderful hospitality during our visit to the AAOD Centre!

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