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
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