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The dinosaur hunters

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EULO, Australia — In a corner of outback Australia known mostly for mining and farming, the bones of extinct creatures are an unusual new harvest.

This sparsely populated region of southwest Queensland, covered millions of years ago by a vast inland sea, was once trod by dinosaurs and marsupials the size of minivans. In recent years, the bones of these creatures have begun to be unearthed.

In a place where properties are so large cattle are mustered with helicopters, the discovery of fossils is more than a curiosity. They have the potential to attract tourists to a region where the rural economy is crumbling as the drought continues and the mining boom ends.

The discovery of dinosaurs and megafauna — giant animals, most of which are now extinct — in this region comes as little surprise to those who grew up here. As an 8-year-old boy growing up on a property that stretches for 27,000 hectares (66,718 acres), Rob Newsham would dig out bits of bones with his Tonka truck.

Rob’s father, Kenneth Newsham, once spotted a giant spinal column in a dam — far too big for any living domestic animal — but the family was too busy with the farm to think much of it. Then in 2011, Stuart and Robyn Mackenzie showed up and proposed they take a look at the property Rob runs with his wife Re to see what they could find.

Re and Rob Newsham with their two daughters.
Scott Hocknull, paleontologist.

Upright in his blue cotton shirt, Stuart Mackenzie is mayor of nearby Quilpie Shire and an Australian farmer in the classic mold. It’s his wife Robyn, however, wiry with an air of indomitable capability, who is driving the local search for dinosaurs and megafauna.

The Mackenzies live on a 121,406-hectare (300,000-acre) sheep and cattle property, 100 kilometres (62 miles) west of the town of Eromanga, a dusty three-hour drive from Eulo. Digging for dinosaurs would have never crossed their minds if their then-14-year-old son Sandy hadn’t brought home a mysterious hunk of bone he found while working on the farm in 2004.

The fragment, which fits snug in the palm of your hand, was different from the bleached cattle and kangaroo bones that litter the red dirt, so Sandy brought it to his father, who eventually took it to a museum in Brisbane.

It turns out it was part of a giant plant-eating dinosaur and 95 million years old. “It’s one piece of bone that’s changed our lives,” Robyn said, sitting in the corrugated steel field station that will eventually form a dinosaur museum in Eromanga.

The Mackenzies thought scientists would swamp them with calls after the discovery but the world of academia was mostly silent. However, the bones had woken something in Robyn and the pair chased funding and borrowed equipment from neighbours to take more fossils from the ground. Then in 2014, they started to build the Eromanga Natural History Museum.

Their most significant find so far is an immense dinosaur nicknamed Cooper until it’s scientifically named. The discovery, found in the Eromanga Basin and thought to be a new genus and species of dinosaur, is up to 5 metres (21.3 feet) high at the shoulder and up to 30 metres (98 feet) long. This could put it among the 10 largest dinosaurs in the world.

“The most notable thing about Eromanga dinosaurs is that they’re very, very big,” Robyn explained.

Judging by the megafauna remains found on the Newsham’s property near Eulo, a fearsome group of giant extinct creatures once ate, bred, slept and fought here during the Pleistocene, approximately 150,000-50,000 years ago, long after dinosaurs had gone extinct.

The remains of the Diprotodon optatum, a giant marsupial resembling a bear, have been found, as well as teeth from the Varanus priscus or megalania, a giant goanna five to six metres (16 to 20 feet) long. Bones from Palorchestes, a giant marsupial tapir, and teeth and hide armour plating from the Pallimnarchus, a giant freshwater crocodile, have also been uncovered. There are even remnants of the Quinkana, a crocodile that may have spent much of its time on land.

Around 10 species of megafauna have been found so far, with at least another 20 species that could have lived here at the time. The most common find is the Diprotodon, or as locals call it, the “dippydron.” They’ve also found tiny fossils from species of fish, frogs, lizards and small mammals. “We can probably say we have the tiniest fossil in Australia to the largest in one collection,” Robyn said.

While working at the Eulo dig, a group of about 10 people, including trained paleontologists, volunteers, nurses, farmers and students, sleep in the shearers’ quarters, which normally house the tough transients who turn up for sheep shearing season. The concrete-floored rooms, each with two small bunk beds, line one side. Opposite, a wide corridor with noisy slamming screen doors connects the kitchen and eating area, a warm space in the intimidating black of an outback night.

To drive the half-hour to the dig at 7.30 a.m., everyone rises before dawn and drives carefully, shutting paddock gates along the way. A cloud of red dust is stirred up by the vehicles, leaving a film of fine dust across everything it touches, impossible to get out of car seats and clothes.

The dig site itself is a flat patch of red-brown earth surrounded by tangled scrub broken up by grazing livestock. If you’re someone who barely lays a hand on soil, it’s a new sensation to discover that earth can be a pleasure to dig. The dirt here crumbles easily when you prod it with a screwdriver, tapping down carefully for bone.

Rochelle Lawrence, technical officer.
Mel Wilkinson, geologist.

It’s thought the Diprotodons wandered into a mud spring here and became trapped, their bones spread by scavengers. Then they fell deeper, sinking into the sediment where they’ve waited all these years.

Though the digs are painstaking and slow, for a newcomer the land seems fertile with bone. Mel Wilkinson, a geologist here on behalf of the mining company Santos, which helps fund the dig, clears rubble with his toe and finds the beautifully preserved vertebrae of a pre-historic lizard. 

It’s black and rather sculptural. Everyone wants to hold it, until they’re distracted by the Italian cook Mary Bernardi who brings everyone the type of sandwich you only see in outback Australia — medium-done steak with charred onions, tomato, lettuce and beetroot between two slices of bright white bread.

The first Diprotodon fossils were found in the Wellington Caves in northern New South Wales in the 1830s, and were sent to the United Kingdom for identification. There, the famous paleontologist, Richard Owen, named and ultimately identified many of Australia’s megafauna, including the Diprotodon.

The argument about whether the first Australians, the Aboriginal people, coexisted with megafauna has become one with emotional weight. At a time when we’re digesting our own destruction through global warming, who or what wiped out the megafauna has become a tense question. For many, there is a nagging fear the presence of humans in Australia has always included an element of destruction.

In 1877, considering the extinction of the megafauna in Australia, Owen concluded “no other adequate cause presents itself to my mind save the hostile agency of man.”

There are two main camps with theories about what caused megafauna to go extinct around 50,000 to 30,000 years ago — numbers that remain debated — whether caused by humans or due to a change in climate, or a combination of both. For many, that denies the complexity of how things live and die.

Over tea at the shearers’ quarters, Scott Hocknull, who calls himself a “vagrant paleontologist,” goes over his view of the myths and truths. In Hocknull’s mind, there’s no doubt megafauna and humans coexisted. “The question is for how long, where and what the ramifications of that was?” he asked. “At the moment, Australian megafauna extinction debates are very polarised. It’s typical of a single smoking gun, the need for one answer.”

There’s the widely critiqued “blitzkrieg” theory that suggests the Aboriginals hunted megafauna after they arrived on the Australian continent, likely between 60,000 and 40,000 years ago, and wiped the lumbering beasts out in short order. However, as yet, no definitive sites of human-slaughtered megafauna have been found in Australia.

According to Hocknull, Cuddie Springs in northern New South Wales is the only discovered site that could potentially show megafauna and humans lived side-by-side. Fossilised megafauna bones have been found there, alongside human artefacts. If legitimate, humans lived with megafauna for thousands of years, but this is still the subject of scientific dispute. The site does not definitively show megafauna were hunted by humans. 

The climate was also changing. As the last ice age ended, fresh water around Australia began to dry up, making resources tight for the megafauna and reducing areas of habitation — possibly forcing them to extinction. Many descendants of animals from this period remain in Australia, including kangaroos and wombats, but almost everything as large as the Diprotodondisappeared.

No clear story is likely to emerge, and what would it show if it did? “If humans are the culprit, then that doesn’t tell us something we don’t know,” he said, with candour. “Yes, humans are predators and wipe out species. If climate, that only proves animals die in drought.” These thoughts are sharp but strangely comforting — they encourage action rather than blame.

It’s possible these creatures were wiped out by a changing climate, but they didn’t have to live with their own role in it, as we do. Still, surely they could tell something was on its way. If conditions were anything like today, they’d be “pretty hollow in the guts by now,” Rob Newsham commented later that evening, as a breeze brought relief to the farm.

Surrounded by the white casts of hundreds of dinosaur bones in Eromanga, Stuart Mackenzie said that working on the land in this way is sure to change your view. 

“Anyone who gets involved in this area of science, I think it’s almost mind-altering the way you look at everything about the planet, the environment, climate,” he said. “Certainly, for people that make their living off rural properties, the weather is everything, the rain is everything.”

Emerging from a long, harsh drought, these ancient bones offer those still on the land new industry and a new sense of their history.

Source : http://mashable.com/