100-million-year-old fossil dug up in Australian outback might be a new species

Aussie fossil hunters have unearthed the continent’s first elasmosaur fossil in western Queensland.

The 100-million-year-old head and body bones of the marine reptile were uncovered by three fossil enthusiasts who regularly trawl the ranges of their privately-owned outback station searching for ancient remains.

Their previous expeditions have found the remnants of kronosaurus, ichthyosaurs, and prehistoric fish and turtles.

What’s most exciting about the elasmosaur discovery is the retrieval of both body and head fossils at the same time – a new milestone the Queensland Museum has described as like finding the Rosetta Stone for marine palaeontology.

Elasmosaurs are a type of plesiosaur – a long-necked marine reptile – that coexisted with dinosaurs during the cretaceous period (contrary to popular belief, not all large ancient reptiles are of the dinosauria grouping).

“We have never found a body and a head together and this could hold the key to future research in this field,” says Dr Espen Knutsen, the senior scientist and curator of palaeontology at Queensland Museum.

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Dr Espen Knutsen with the fossilised head of an ancient elasmosaur / Credit: Queensland Museum Network

Queenslanders love water, and it was especially the case in the cretaceous period

There are few things that might seem as counterintuitive than finding the remains of a long-necked marine reptile in the middle of the dry, Australian outback.

But such is the passage of time.

During the Cretaceous period (146-65 million years ago) when elasmosaurs swam the Earth, much of the landmass today associated with Queensland was submerged beneath a shallow sea and located at latitudes much closer to the Earth’s south pole.

The presence of this land-covering sea is why the region is today home to the regular discovery of marine reptile fossils. Among palaeontologists, Queensland is considered one of the world’s most fertile regions for unearthing dinosaur remnants.

And the discovery of the head and body is a first for an Australian institution, adding to an expanding collection of specimens from this taxonomic clade at the Queensland Museum, including the most complete elasmosaur skeleton dubbed ‘Dave the Plesiosaur’ found in 1999.

But Dave, unfortunately, suffers the same problem as many of his kind: he’s lost his head.

That’s because the weight of the head often resulted in it separating from the rest of the skeleton after the animal’s death.

It isn’t the case with this new discovery though, and finding a body and head together could unlock a new species.

Knutsen’s team will take the specimen into the lab for CT scanning and 3D modelling to provide finer detail as to the biology of the animal.

At the very least, the discovery will further the museum’s understanding of the diversity of plesiosaurs in Australia hundreds of millions of years ago.

“It’s going to tell us a lot of about the taxonomy, or the species diversity – how many of these were around at the time,” says Knutsen.

“Even though we’ve been collecting fossils from outback Queensland for about 150 years or so, there’s still so much we don’t know about these animals that were swimming in this ancient inland sea 100 million years ago.

“It’s a beautiful specimen to show the public, but it’s really important for the understanding for everything we’re trying to do to further knowledge of these fauna. It’s a great moment.”

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