Digging for dinosaurs
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.