My recent adventures in the mesozoic era (Part One)

15 09 2017

I journeyed, alongside fellow author Edwina Harvey, to outback Queensland last week, to see what’s known as the ‘Dinosaur Trail’: a collection of sites and museums associated with the towns of Winton, Hughenden, and Richmond.

First stop was the Australian Age of Dinosaurs museum, approx. 20 km south-east of Winton:


That’s a bronze statue of Australovenator wintonensis, known colloquially as ‘Banjo’, just outside the museum’s front entrance. It’s life size, around 2 m tall and 6 m from snout to tail tip. Do not be misled by the letter sequence ‘love’ within Banjo’s scientific name: here’s a close-up of his (or her) embrace:


Should you retain any doubt over Australovenator‘s behavioural tendencies, here’s a photo which playfully superimposes a reconstruction of Banjo’s known remains over a potential prey item (though, so far as we know, museum guides were not a feature of the Cretaceous biosphere):


The AAoD museum was not, by any means, all about Banjo, though it’s obvious that carnivorous theropods like this are a major drawcard. The museum also holds holotype-specimen remains for two different local Cretaceous-era sauropods, Diamantinasaurus matildae and Wintonotitan wattsi, with respective body lengths of up to 18 and 20 metres, though as yet there are neither articulated skeletal reconstructions of these beasts, nor life-sized bronze statues—hardly surprising given their size, although there are apparently plans to construct statues of them. Probably my favourite part of the museum was the access provided to guests to tour (under supervision) the museum’s fossil-preparation lab, where museum staff and trained volunteers labour through the painstaking task of cleaning and identifying fossils that have been extracted in the field. There’s a heavy backlog of finds to work through.

Fossil recovery in the area might well be skewed towards sauropods and other large dinosaurs, because of the particular way that fossil fragments emerge (through, I gather, a kind of ‘brazil-nut effect‘) atop the region’s blacksoil: it stands to reason that larger fossilised-bone fragments, such as sauropod femurs, will be much more prominent (and therefore noticeable) within the landscape than would the leg-bones of a substantially smaller dinosaur. In this context, it’s worth noting that Banjo’s remains were discovered during the excavation of ‘Matilda’, the holotype D. matildae specimen: the predator may well not have come to light had not a dig already been underway to extract the sauropod.

Winton is also the most convenient stepping-off point for an excursion to the Dinosaur Stampede National Monument, approx. 120 km SSW, at Lark Quarry. The ‘Stampede’ is a fossilised lakeshore on which were set down, around 95 million years ago, the footprints of a herd of approx. 150 small dinosaurs (coelurosaurs and ornithopods, the remains of which haven’t been found locally but are known from fossil excavations further south, in Victoria) admixed with the prints of a larger theropod, possibly Australovenator or a carnivorous cousin. The fossilised trackway, now carefully protected within a climate-controlled enclosure to minimise weathering, is undeniably impressive but difficult to photograph effectively, so rather than trouble you with any of my shots from the actual site I’ll instead sneak in another shot from the AAoD museum, within which the ‘Dinosaur Canyon’ includes a recreation, in bronze, of the moment preserved in the stampede:


From the left, that’s a theropod, a couple of small coelurosaurs, and an ornithopod, all involved in a presumably-lethal game of ‘tag’.

Apropos of nothing in particular, here’s a shot from the drive back to Winton. This kind of roadsign probably wouldn’t work on a busier highway:


That’s an encapsulation of the dinosaur stuff around Winton. I’ll do another post soon on the saurian sights around Hughenden and Richmond …




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