Fossil fever: driving and digging in a long lost sea on Australia’s dinosaur trail

Fossil fever: driving and digging in a long lost sea on Australia’s dinosaur trail

Breaking rocks in the sun to find fossils did not sound fun. Before the first blow of the geological hammer was made, the ancient seashell embedded in the rough stone had a smooth grey arc.

We started early in order to avoid the heat. We arranged our treasures for morning tea: belemnites, coprolites, and bones. We then grabbed our hammers and brushes and returned to collect more. We were seized by fossil fever.

We were at an open dig near Richmond, in north Queensland. The rocks of the Toolebuc formation are visible on the surface. We were determined to explore the depths of time. These rocks are known to paleontologists as a result of their diversity. The formation was our first stop along the Queensland dinosaur trail. We travelled 700km from Richmond to Boulia.


A grazier named Ian Ievers discovered a fossil in 1989 at Marathon Station near Richmond. He and his brothers removed the dirt and found a long-jawed, toothy skull, as well as the first few vertebrae from a thin neck. Marathon Station had been the scene of many interesting discoveries, but this one was unique. The brothers recognized that it was unusual and contacted the Queensland Museum, Brisbane. They had discovered an almost complete skeleton from a seagoing giant reptile known as a plesiosaur.

The skeleton was removed from the rock that held it for the first Cretaceous Period. The plesiosaur, nicknamed Penny, is the centerpiece of Richmond’s Kronosaurus Korner, a museum dedicated to fossils from the ancient Eromanga sea.

Many of the museum’s hundreds of specimens were donated by fossickers who worked at these sites. Local cattle stations have presented some of the specimens. The dinosaur trails were developed as a result of this synergy. Tourists looking for adventure are now driving across the state.

Imagine western Queensland as a floor of an ocean. The sky is clear, and the creeks are empty at this time of the year. Emus and brolgas roam over the sun-bleached flats. When Penny was alive, the plesiosaurs were swimming in a vast ocean that stretched from the Gulf of Carpentaria up to New South Wales. It also extended westward into central Australia. The sea has long since disappeared, but its remains can still be found in rock layers containing the fossilized remains of marine reptiles from prehistoric times. These include dolphin-like ichthyosaurs as well as the giant predator Kronosaurus.

A life-size Kronosaurus model sits outside the Richmond Museum and stares at passing pedestrians. It’s 10m long, and the jaws are lined with railway spike-like teeth.

The first Australian Kronosaurus was a partial skull dug up in the 1930s near Hughenden and sent to Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Numerous fragments of Kronosaurus have been discovered in Queensland since then and are now in Australian collections. The amateur dig we did in Richmond yielded flipper bones from ichthyosaurus, wing bones from pterosaurs and ichthyosaurus, but no kronosaurus or Penny’s relatives.

Marine reptiles, however large or fierce they may appear, are not dinosaurs. You have to go south to Winton to see dinosaurs.

In 95 million years, the Winton area had swamps and permanent lakes that were fed by rivers. It was also covered with dense vegetation. Dinosaurs died and lived on the shores of shallow water and near shorelines, where their footprints and bodies were covered with silt and mud.

Winton rocks are home to land-dwelling dinos – such as the long-necked and long-tailed titanosaurs, coelurosaurs, and carnivorous Australovenator. Its claws were as sharp and curved as sickles, and it shredded prey. The bones and teeth of these animals, as well as their spectacular tracks and footprints, are still preserved.

The most famous trackway can be found at the Dinosaur Stampede National Monument in Lark Quarry. The prints are protected from the elements by a rammed-earth building. They tell the story of an idyllic prehistoric day that was shattered when a hungry predator arrived. Three dinosaur species left their prints in the mud. Visitors can interpret the marks from a guide that explains how they change depending on whether the dinosaurs are pursuing or fleeing. This is the CSI Cretaceous Period.

Lark Quarry, the smaller dinosaur museum in Winton, is located at Lark Quarry. The Australian Age of Dinosaurs complex of stone and metal buildings blends into the landscape on top of a hill of red rocks dotted with yellow-green spinifex. The jump is accessed by a sealed road that leads to the reception. The guided tour starts from there.

The first stop is the lab where rock matrix from dinosaur skeletons is carefully removed millimeter-by-millimeter. Next, the bones of Banjo, the Australovenator killer, and Matilda, a leaf-eating Diamantinasaurus, are displayed in the collection room. Although the two animals were discovered together, it is unlikely that they are in love.

The museum has a trackway of dinosaur footprints. With their huge steps, you can almost feel the earth shake. Visitors can then follow the path through the rocky canyons with statues and ancient plants depicting the Lark Quarry Stampede.

David Elliott is responsible for the Australian Age of Dinosaurs, which was founded on his cattle station. Many of these fossils were discovered there. Elliott built research facilities in his backyard to enable paleontologists working on Winton fossils to study them. Peter and Carol Britton gave 1,400 hectares at Mount Landsborough Station to the museum in 2006. The rest (pre-)history.

The trail ended at the Stone House Museum in Boulia in Queensland’s Channel Country. There is still so much to discover.

Scientists at the Queensland Museum and the Natural History Museum in Eromanga described and named Australia’s biggest dinosaur, Australotitan Cooperensis, on Monday. The name of the town is derived from a large sea that once surrounded it. It’s located about 600km southwest of Winton. Eromanga Natural History Museum offers tours and digs, as well as promises to make more exciting discoveries.

The Flinders Discovery Centre in Hughenden also had a muttaburrasaurus.

The 10-day trip was a challenge but worth it.

How to get there

It is a remote location with long distances to cover in harsh terrain, particularly if the trail is extended into Eromanga. A suitable vehicle is required, as well as plenty of water.

Mount Isa is the nearest airport in Australia to the beginning of the Australian Dinosaur Trail. It is located four hours west of Richmond or three-and-a-half hours north of Boulia. The round trip, excluding Eromanga from Mount Isa, is more than 1,500km.

Quilpie is the nearest domestic airport, with flights leaving Brisbane twice weekly. The Eromanga Museum can arrange coach transfers between Eromanga Airport and Quilpie.

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