The Winton Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum has announced the naming of Savannasaurus elliottorum, a new genus and species of dinosaur.
The bones come from the Winton Formation, a geological deposit 95 million years old and the paper naming the new dinosaur was published on Thursday in Scientific Reports — an open access, online journal published by Nature.
Savannasaurus was discovered by David Elliott, co-founder of the Museum, while mustering sheep in early 2005.
“I was nearly home with the mob — only about a kilometre from the yards — when I spotted a small pile of fossil bone fragments on the ground,” Mr Elliot said.
“I was particularly excited at the time as there were two pieces of a relatively small limb bone and I was hoping it might be a meat-eating theropod dinosaur.”
Mr Elliott then collect the bone fragments with his wife Judy, who ‘clicked’ two pieces together to reveal a complete toe bone from a plant-eating sauropod.
The site was excavated in September 2005 by a joint AAOD Museum and Queensland Museum team and 17 pallets of bones encased in rock were recovered.
After almost 10 years of painstaking work by staff and volunteers at the AAOD Museum, the hard siltstone concretion around the bones was finally removed to reveal one of the most complete sauropod dinosaur skeletons ever found in Australia.
More excitingly, it belonged to a completely new type of dinosaur.
The new discovery was nicknamed Wade in honour of prominent Australian palaeontologist Dr Mary Wade.
“Mary was a very close friend of ours and she passed away while we were digging at the site,” Mr Elliott. said
“We couldn’t think of a better way to honour her name.”
Dr Stephen Poropat, Research Associate at the AAOD Museum and lead author of the study, said the formal name referenced the savannah country of western Queensland in which it was found, and honours the Elliott family for their ongoing commitment to Australian palaeontology.
But unearthing the 95-million-year-old dinosaur remains was worth the wait. The find represents not only a new species of dinosaur but a new genus.
"It represents a new end point on the sauropod family tree," Dr Poropat said.
Almost a quarter of the skeleton has been retrieved - making this the third-most complete Australian dinosaur skeleton.
The largest individual fossil collected was the dinosaur's humerus, or upper arm bone, which weighs about 100 kilograms.
The bones collected include vertebrae, pelvis, shoulder and limb bones. However there are just a few neck and tail bones, leaving researchers to guess the length these body parts might have been.
Having gathered almost a quarter of the skeleton, paleontologists were able to build up a picture of what the dinosaur, which belongs to the titanosaurus group, might have looked like.
Its barrel of a belly would have housed a huge gut, where the nutrients from the vegetation it snipped off plants with its front teeth were slowly extracted. It didn't have back teeth, so was unable to chew.
"These dinosaurs may well have been like walking, fermenting vats," Dr Poropat said. "They could have retained food in their system for up to two weeks in order to extract sufficient nutritional value from their food."
Its ancestors probably came from South America - meaning the Australian dinosaur could provide an explanation as to how and when dinosaurs dispersed across the globe.
"It's a really exciting find as it sheds light on exactly how animals moved across the continents and through time," Dr Poropat said.
"And another thing the fossil record can help us answer is when the Australian fauna started to show such a unique character. It's quite possible that that process started long before Australia finally detached from Antarctica."
The discovery, as well as the identification of the first fossilsed dinosaur head bones ever found in Australia, has been outlined in the journal Scientific Reports.
- with Bridie Smith
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