Palaeontologists have uncovered the most complete titanosaur fossil found in Australia – and it’s a species brand new to science.
Skeletal remnants of Savannasaurus elliottorum – nicknamed ‘Wade’ in honour of late Australian palaeontologist Mary Wade – were painstakingly unearthed from Queensland’s Winton Formation, a rocky outcrop that hosts a wealth of dinosaur fossils.
S. elliottorum seems to be a member of the titanosaurs, a group that includes the largest dinosaurs.
In Scientific Reports, researchers from Australia, the US and Europe also unveiled the first partial sauropod skull ever found in Australia – this time, of another titanosaur Diamantinasaurus matildae.
For study co-author Stephen Poropat from the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum in Winton in Queensland, the discoveries are “a childhood dream come true”.
“I wanted to work on dinosaurs, and specifically sauropod dinosaurs, since pre-primary school,” he says.
Titanosaurs were plant-eating dinosaurs sporting a long neck and tail that stomped the Earth in the Late Cretaceous period, around 95 to 98 million years ago.
They’re also the largest known dinosaurs – the biggest titanosaur ever discovered measured 37 metres from snout to tail.
But the remains of the new species S. elliottorum point to a stocky, 10-toed titanosaur who would have only stretched across half a basketball court.
S. elliottorum was discovered in 2005 by David Elliott, also at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum, who stumbled across two bone fragments while mustering sheep near his home.
He initially believed the bones belonged to a flesh-eating therapod – a dinosaur that walked on its hind legs.
But when he showed his wife, she clicked them together, revealing the fossils actually formed a single toe bone from a much larger plant-eating sauropod.
Over the decade since, he and army of scientists and volunteers excavated the rest of the dinosaur, which was embedded in a hard, concrete-like block.
Poropat says the block had to be jack-hammered through lines of gypsum, which formed natural breaking points, to expose the fossils within.
“It has taken them close to 10 years to get all of those bones out of the rocky tomb in which that dinosaur died.”
The fossils embedded in the rocks were so stiff and unlikely to be damaged, Poropat adds, palaeontologists used them as training exercises for the volunteers.
Anatomical features of D. matildae’s braincase showed closer similarities to “primitive” titanosaurs than advanced titanosaurs.