Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Dinosaurs are booming in the Outback

Emory science majors pose with a life-sized statue of Muttaburrasaurus langdoni while crusing the Cretaceous of Queensland. Can you spot Paleontologist Barbie in this picture? You may have to click on the photo to enlarge it. Photo by Anthony Martin.

A dozen years ago, Australian rancher David Elliott came across a large bone while rounding up his sheep in the Queensland Outback. It turned out to be the femur of an 18-meter long sauropod – a piece of the largest dinosaur ever found in Australia.

The collecting bug bit Elliot, as more dinosaur fossils were dug up on his property. He and his wife, Judy, founded the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Center (AAOD) in Winton. The isolated Outback town, where poet Banjo Patterson wrote the classic tune “Waltzing Matilda,” is now a hub for dino tourism.

“Australia has often been regarded as ‘dinosaur poor,’” says Emory paleontologist Anthony Martin. “As a continent, there just hadn’t been a lot of material to study.”

Since Elliot’s initial discovery, the AAOD has amassed hundreds of bones, and more keep coming. “So far, they’ve named three new species of dinosaurs, and they suspect they have more,” Martin says. “There is a growing realization that a new age of dinosaurs is happening in Australia.”

Martin and geologist Steve Henderson of Emory’s Oxford College recently returned from leading nine students on a summer study abroad program in Australia. A highlight was a whirlwind paleo-tour of Queensland, including a stop at the AAOD.

“We wanted to give the students a taste of what life is like in the modern-day Outback, and 100 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period,” Martin says. “I hope they got an appreciation for the incredible natural history of Queensland, and the evolution of landscapes and life in that area of the world.”

Unlike the American West, which has a 100-year history of unearthing and studying dinosaur fossils, Queensland is at the beginning of uncovering a rich trove of the prehistoric past.

“You get to see the science as it's happening and feel the immediacy of discoveries,” Martin says.

Trish Sloan, the group’s guide at the AAOD, showed the students how to prepare a dinosaur bone, and gave them a glimpse of the center’s most recent finds. “I can’t talk about it, because it hasn’t gone through peer review yet,” Martin says. “But Trish was excited about new finds that may change people’s minds about the dinosaurs in the area.”

Read more about Down Under dinosaurs on Martin's blog The Great Cretaceous Walk.

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