Dig­ging for di­nosaurs

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - DAVID LEVELL

They’ve thought of ev­ery­thing at Di­nosaur Canyon — even ptero­dactyl poo. You could call it Australia’s Juras­sic Park, ex­cept these crea­tures are strictly Cre­ta­ceous and not even think­ing about hav­ing us for lunch.

The out­door, outback dis­play of di­nosaur stat­u­ary is the lat­est fea­ture of the ever-evolv­ing Aus­tralian Age of Di­nosaurs, cen­tral-west Queens­land’s com­bined dino tourism and fos­sil-hunt­ing foun­da­tion.

Si­t­u­ated 24km and 95 mil­lion years from Win­ton on a mesa (the Jump-Up) that AAOD calls home, Di­nosaur Canyon is like a frozen zoo. Life-size, life­like di­nosaurs cast in bronze are sus­pended in a mo­ment of their long­gone time, com­ple­mented by the Jump-Up’s bush back­drop and panoramic views across flat plains be­low.

A fam­ily of winged ptero­dactyls (fly­ing rep­tiles, not di­nos, the sign re­minds) perch on rocks, com­plete with life­like guano. Three ar­mour-plated Kun­bar­rasaurus stat­ues look half-ar­madillo, half-wom­bat. Val­ley of the Cy­cads shows off (real) Cre­ta­ceous-style veg­e­ta­tion, while Death In The Bil­l­abong recre­ates how di­nosaur bones looked be­fore rapid cov­er­ing (usu­ally by wa­ter) kick-started fos­sil­i­sa­tion.

In the most dra­matic dino-rama, the fear­some preda­tor Aus­tralove­na­tor — all claws and jaws — sends two dozen small fry rac­ing for dear life across rocky flats. It’s in­spired by Di­nosaur Stam­pede Na­tional Mon­u­ment, an AAOD-run at­trac­tion 134km away, where real-life di­nosaur foot­prints are ev­i­dence of such an en­counter.

Meet­ing bronze ptero­dactyls on boul­ders and di­nosaurs amid eu­ca­lypts cer­tainly helps the mind’s eye con­jure the deep past, even if it wasn’t the outback as we know it. When Banjo Pater­son wrote of the “vi­sion splen­did of the sun­lit plains ex­tended”, he had no idea the hard black soil of to­day’s dry plains held mon­strous bones from a van­ished world of lush, rain-soaked pine forests.

In 1999, lo­cal sheep gra­zier David El­liott hit a 1.6m fe­mur while mus­ter­ing by mo­tor­bike — the re­mains of an ele­phant-dwarf­ing, long-necked sauro­pod. Fasci- nated, David and his wife Judy founded AAOD in 2002 and haven’t stopped un­earthing outback Queens­land’s pre­his­tory.

It’s a twin win for sci­ence and re­gional tourism; Win­ton doesn’t call it­self the Di­nosaur Cap­i­tal of Australia for noth­ing. Al­lied with Queens­land Mu­seum and aided by vol­un­teers, AAOD has iden­ti­fied four new species — a rap­tor-like preda­tor and three giant long-necked sauropods — and amassed Australia’s big­gest stock­pile of di­nosaur bones await­ing study.

You can glimpse some of this back­log on a Jump-Up Lab tour, and see how vol­un­teers “prep’’ bones (re­move rock cas­ing) with spe­cialised drills. You can join them your­self af­ter a 10-day course, or even go dino-hunt­ing with no train­ing at all. Ev­ery win­ter, vol­un­teer dig­gers (“dug­gers’’ if they’ve been be­fore) pay to spend a week with the El­liotts’ AAOD team on lo­cal sheep sta­tions, stay­ing in shear­ers’ quar­ters and work­ing closely with palaeon­tol­o­gists.

Dig sites are found thanks to soil ro­ta­tion, which slowly pushes sub­sur­face ma­te­rial up­wards. A sin­gle bone spot­ted above-ground of­ten means more un­der­neath. Dig­ging in­volves a lot of care­ful scrap­ing and chis­elling, helped by con­vivial smokos and the un­flag­ging en­thu­si­asm and hu­mour of dig­gers and sci­en­tists alike.

The star of this year’s dig is a new sauro­pod, dubbed Judy. Ex­ca­va­tion around a sur­face bone un­cov­ers a long line of neck ver­te­brae, ly­ing prac­ti­cally in place, an in­cred­i­bly rare oc­cur­rence. Then a tooth ap­pears where the skull would have been.

At Judy’s other end, flow­ery pat­terns on iron­stone slabs spark learned spec­u­la­tion about fos­silised gut wall. No one’s seen its like be­fore and the pit buzzes with ex­cite­ment.

Di­nosaur Canyon is the be­gin­ning of AAOD’s vi­sion splen­did. A new mu­seum is planned for the ridge over­look­ing the stat­ues and Win­ton’s sun­lit plains, hous­ing what will be Australia’s most com­pre­hen­sive di­nosaur dis­play — and new digs for Judy, no doubt.

• aus­tralian­a­ge­ofdi­nosaurs.com

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