DI­NOSAUR MUSTER

When Robyn Macken­zie’s teenage son picked up a fos­sil on the fam­ily’s huge Queens­land prop­erty, he kicked off a hunt that would re­veal the re­mains of the big­gest crea­tures to ever roam Aus­tralia, writes Steve Meacham

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Museums -

Ina large, pur­pose-built tin shed in the re­mote Queens­land town of Ero­manga (pop­u­la­tion 45) lie the fos­silised bones of Monty, the largest di­nosaur ever found in Aus­tralia. In May, huge pieces of rock con­tain­ing Monty’s bones were ex­ca­vated at a dig site, each cov­ered by a pro­tec­tive plas­ter cast­ing, then trans­ported by semi-trailer 100km back to the town’s di­nosaur and megafauna mu­seum (its ad­dress: 1 Di­nosaur Drive).

“Monty is around 95 mil­lion years old,” says ge­ol­o­gist Mel Wilkin­son, the dig su­per­vi­sor.

Un­til now, the largest di­nosaur un­earthed in Aus­tralia had been Cooper, which the same team found in 2006, and who is also a res­i­dent of the Ero­manga Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum.

“Cooper is much larger than an ele­phant. We’re talk­ing 25m from head to tail, and around 5m tall,” Wilkin­son says. “Judg­ing from the bones we’ve had a pre­lim­i­nary look at, Monty is even big­ger.”

Both Monty and Cooper (di­nosaurs are given nick­names un­til sci­en­tific de­scrip­tions are awarded, ap­par­ently) are sauropods, four- legged, long-necked, plant-eaters that most of us as­so­ciate with the iconic bron­tosaurus.

“They would have spent most of their lives eat­ing,” Wilkin­son says. “Dur­ing the Cre­ta­ceous pe­riod, this part of Aus­tralia was wet­ter and warmer, so there were lots of pine trees and ferns.”

In 11 years of ex­ca­va­tions, the dig team hasn’t dis­cov­ered any car­niv­o­rous di­nosaurs. “There would have been some meat-eaters,” Wilkin­son says. “We just haven’t found them yet.”

Nor were Monty or Cooper the big­gest di­nosaurs to stalk Aus­tralia, he ad­mits. The fa­mous foot­prints along Broome’s “Di­nosaur Coast” were made by sauropods that might have been even larger, but no fos­sils have ever been found.

How­ever, Wilkin­son adds: “Our sites are chang­ing the way Aus­tralia is per­ceived in terms of di­nosaur re­search. Quite of­ten we’re dis­cov­er­ing new species.”

So what hap­pens now? Surely an ex­pert sci­en­tific team is al­ready chip­ping away the im­mensely hard, 95 mil­lion-year-old rock that has en­tombed Monty since he — or she — was swal­lowed in death by a pre­his­toric river?

If only, Wilkin­son laments. “It’s frus­trat­ing. We’re a not-for-profit mu­seum. We have dis­cov­er­ies dat­ing back to 2010 that have yet to be ex­am­ined. We rely on a small team of vol­un­teers, cit­i­zen sci­en­tists.”

In the US and China — blessed with two of the world’s rich­est di­nosaur “grave­yards” — it is con­sid­ered a source of na­tional pride to in­vest in sci­en­tific re­search into a pe­riod of pre­his­tory that re­mains peren­ni­ally pop­u­lar (just look at the global suc­cess of the movie Juras­sic Park: Fallen King­dom).

“In the US, there’s uni­ver­sity and govern­ment sup­port plus phi­lan­thropists to make sure fos­sil prepa­ra­tion is done in a timely man­ner,” Wilkin­son says. “In China, which has an in­cred­i­ble col­lec­tion of di­nosaurs and early bird life, it is pres­ti­gious to be in­volved in this kind of re­search.” But in Ero­manga?

Cooper took years to re­lease from the rock, and the sci­en­tific pa­per con­firm­ing “his” iden­tity won’t be pub­lished un­til the end of this year.

As for Monty, its gi­gan­tic bones will be in a queue, await­ing at­ten­tion from the team of four lo­cals trained in di­nosaur fos­sil prepa­ra­tion and

Robyn Macken­zie with a fos­silised Ti­tanosaur tooth

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