Australotiton coperensis, a long-necked herbivorous animal of the Cretaceous period, is estimated to have weighed 70 tons, measured two stories tall and extended the length of a basketball court.
Robin and Stuart Mackenzie, while riding motorbikes on their giant sheep and cattle farm in the Australian outback one day in 2006, spotted a pile of what looked like large black rocks.
Upon closer inspection, they appeared to be dinosaur bones. An even closer inspection, with the help of paleontologists who were part of a new study, found that they belonged to a new species of dinosaur that is the largest ever discovered in Australia and one of the largest in the world.
Researchers in Eromanga, Queensland, where Mackenzie lives, said on Monday they had identified the species, called Australotiton coperensis. Nicknamed Cooper after a creek near the fossil site, it was a long-necked, plant-eating titanosaur that is estimated to have lived more than 90 million years ago during the Cretaceous period. Like Brachiosaurus, titanosaur was part of a group called sauropods, the largest of all dinosaurs.
Although closely related to three other titanosaur species discovered in Australia, Australotitan was much larger. It is estimated to have weighed about 70 tons, was two stories tall and stretched to the length of a basketball court, making it comparable in size to the giant titanosaurs found in South America. Researchers’ findings were published in PeerJ magazine on Monday.
“This is our first hat in the ring, joining the big league of large titanosaur dinosaurs around the world,” said study co-author Scott Hocknull, a paleontologist at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane. “We are very excited about this because it could be a new wave of discoveries of much larger dinosaur species in Australia.”
Unlike the United States, from where dinosaur fossils have been hunted mid 19th centuryAustralia began its “dinosaur rush” relatively recently, with a flurry of discoveries over the past two decades. Like three other titanosaur species, Australotitan was found in the Winton Formation, a thick layer of sedimentary rock that covers large parts of the state of Queensland.
“It’s a very exciting discovery and a wonderfully analyzed one,” said Matt Lamanna, a paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh who has studied many titanosaurs.
Dr Lamanna said the study, which he was not involved in, showed that during the Cretaceous period “Australian dinosaurs were growing as large as the largest dinosaurs we know.”
He also praised the 3-D visualization of the bones of Australasia, which are so heavy they may require several people or even a forklift to move. The visualization has made them easier to compare with the bones of other species and “thus set a new standard for the analysis of a giant titanosaur,” said Dr. Lamanna said.
Because it is mostly flat and lacks mountain ranges and canyons that would eroded rock and uncover fossils, Australia is one of the hardest places in the world to find dinosaurs. Instead of asking people to find dinosaurs, Dr. Hocknul said, “Dinosaurs find you.”
For this reason, farmers have proved to be important, as they find fragments of dinosaur bone that have moved across the surface of their land. The “beautifully preserved” bones may be in black soil several feet below the surface, said Dr. Hocknul, but digging them up requires large machinery. Local communities in Queensland such as Eromanga, a city of about 60 people (ie sometimes in the wrong place by Google Maps), has played an important role in recovering fossils.
A dinosaur bone was first found on Mackenzie’s property in 2004 by his son, Sandy, who was 14 at the time. Initially, Ms Mackenzie said, she and her husband decided it was best for the bones to remain in Eromanga, “instead of being sent to a state museum thousands of kilometers away.” So he started a museum himself.
Neighbors rushed to help. A local earth-moving business provided the machinery for the excavation, an oil refinery supplied the fuel, and others in the city offered money or were trained as volunteers.
“We could not physically get the bones out of the ground the way they supported us,” said Mr Mackenzie, who is also the mayor of Quilpie Shire, an area that includes Eromanga.
Excavations began in 2007, followed by years of preparation and analysis using 3-D scanning to compare the bones with existing species.
Eromanga Natural History Museum Opened in 2016, Winton is run by a non-profit group with the same mission as a natural history museum in the city called the Australian Age of Dinosaurs. The establishment of such museums is “perhaps one of the largest citizen-science expeditions in Australia, certainly for natural history,” Dr. Hocknul said.
“Without them, none of these fossils would be found, none of them would be excavated, none of them would be ready and none of them would be scientifically available,” he said.
Mackenzie says significant excavations are ongoing on his property, including one with bones that may also prove to be from a new species.
Ms Mackenzie, now a field paleontologist, heads the museum and co-authored the study with her husband, said: “I will never in my lifetime see all this material being processed, that’s all. is.” . “That’s why we need this kind of facility to keep employing people.”
The museum is changing the way the people of Eromanga think about the future of the city. Mr Mackenzie said as the border closures of the pandemic have kept Australians home for more than a year, domestic tourism has become much more popular. He hoped the discovery of dinosaurs at Eromanga would bring more international visitors after the country reopens.
Dr. Hocknul said that the museum has also given the children of Eromanga a hands-on science education, which they may not have access to otherwise.
“They’ve probably never been to Brisbane, they’ve never seen the ocean, and yet here they have Australia’s biggest dinosaur in their backyard,” he said.