Outback fossils: golden age of paleo-tourism in Australia

Making hay from old bones: Outback digs driving golden age of paleo-tourism

On a northern Tasmanian back road, a scientist answers nature’s call by the roadside; his target—a convenient boulder— is covered in trilobites, the second most famous group of fossils after dinosaurs.

In south-west Queensland, a 14-year-old farmer’s son finds a rock he thinks might be a fossil, but it’s the bony remnant of a 95-million-year-old plant-eating dinosaur, the world’s second oldest.

Digging a new road in New South Wales’ central west, a dozer driver stops his machine for an unusual slab of rock, the first prized loose from a graveyard of 4000 fossilised fish that perished when their pond dried up on the super-continent of Gondwana some 360 million years ago.

“When you’re little you hear fairy stories about dragons and monsters and witches and things, then suddenly you see dinosaurs and you can go and actually see one in a museum.”

John Long

All over Australia such stories are fuelling a boom in dinosaur tourism and spawning a growing number of museums and science tourism sites.

For the small-town hosts, where so often drought and economic hardship are the norm, the added visitors are a godsend.

What is it about fossils?

Dino-tourism, paleo-tourism, a lesser-known branch of geo-tourism, even eco-tourism; they’re all different names for the same pursuit.

And each panders to our interest in the natural world, offering answers to age-old questions such as: Where did we come from? What came before us?

“People are fascinated by the age of the earth and the different life that used to live here”, says Dr John Long, Strategic Professor of Palaeontology at Flinders University in Adelaide.  

John long flinders palaeo lab courtesy flidners 850
John Long at the Flinders University palaeontology lab. Credit: courtesy Flinders

“Dinosaurs are big, spectacular creatures,” he says, “I think they’re the very first introduction for a child to the world of science.

“When you’re little you hear fairy stories about dragons and monsters and witches and things, then suddenly you see dinosaurs and you can go and actually see one in a museum.”

Long’s research is in fossil fish, and right now that takes him to the Gogo Formation in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, and another site in Central Australia.

“We study these ancient fish to understand the beginnings of the human body plan, (which) is a basic vertebrate, the blueprint, if you like, for all backbone animals, which have arms and legs and heads, and backbones and lungs, and sets of organs and systems.

“Pick any part of the human body and I can tell you where it first evolved; and it’s probably in a fish.”

A man wearing a brown hat, sunglasses and green shirt smiles at the camera in front of a large cliff and water
John Long at Geikie Gorge, Gogo Formation in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Credit: John Long

Why so many?

Australian Geoscience defines fossils as “ancient remains, traces or impressions of animals and plants usually found in sedimentary rocks.”

That Australians keep finding them may, however, be more a matter of history than palaeontology.

Dr Patrick Smith, a paleontologist at the Australian Museum, says it is not necessarily that there are more fossils in Australia, as “there are of course fossils all over the world.”

“But there’s just many more fossils being found in Australia,” he says, “because previously it hasn’t had as many people looking at it, paleontologically speaking.

“Australia when it was first founded was being explored mainly for agriculture and mining.

A young man wearing glasses and a dark beanie smiles at the camera. He is outside with hills in the distance
Dr Patrick Smith. Credit: courtesy Australian Museum

“It was great work, though a lot of the paleontological work was done at a very coarse scale and very quickly.

“That meant they only cherry-picked sites with fossils that were particularly abundant and well preserved.”

Now, later generations of paleontologists are going back to some sites and (sometimes) finding better and more interesting fossils.

Such finds are the supply to match a growing demand for paleo-tourism, as small towns and lesser-known postcodes woo tourists to view their old bones and capitalise on the finds.

Several museums have been built at or near the find sites themselves.

These include the Age of Fishes Museum west of Sydney at Canowindra in NSW (one of only two fossil fish museums in the world).

And the Eromanga Natural History Museum in Quilpie shire south-west Queensland (where the now-famous farmer’s son found Australia’s oldest dinosaur).

The number of finds varies but includes every state and Territory, each festooned with sites of significance to both tourists and scientists alike.

Many are in Queensland, where the world-renowned Australia’s Dinosaur Trail embraces a triangle of outback towns—Winton, Richmond and Hughenden— bringing tourists 1350km west of Brisbane to peer back in time at some of the world’s best-preserved fossils.

Cosmos weekly next edition promotion reading: they used to be worhipped and ancient civilisations buried people alongside them. The changing relationship between humans and chickens. With jonica newby.

These outback hotspots and others elsewhere in the state attract up to 135,000 visitors a year, according to data from Tourism and Events Queensland, and account for 17.6% of the state’s Gross Regional Product.  

Astonishingly, pre-Covid numbers peaked at 1.2m visitors per year, all on a regional road network spanning more than a million square kilometres.

Most Queensland fossil visitors are domestic in origin and self-drivers (98%), but of international tourists there are few to none.

Still, Queensland regional tourist numbers are growing each year at a steady 1.6 – 2.6%, though this includes some visits as an aside to visiting friends, family and for business.

A kronosaurus skeleton lays in a bed of sand, with a full skeleton example projected onto the wall behind it
Kronosaurus skeleton, at marine fossil museum Kronosaurus Korner, Richmond, Queensland. Credit: John Long

But when you consider the sector has grown from nothing to ten tourism sites in just 12 years, and now accounts for 11% of all Outback visitors in the state, it is nothing to sneeze at.

Add the fact that in a ‘dinosaur economy’ visitors spend more than 7 times what they normally do–– apparently when it comes to dinosaurs, the kids want all the souvenirs and food—which simply means greater yields for those businesses previously struggling.

And the growth is only likely to … well, grow … the experts say, as Australia follows overseas trends.

“Look at other countries and you’ll be absolutely blown away,” says Long.  

“China’s got palaeontology museums everywhere: They’re in every single province, so they’ll have their big state museums like in Beijing, but out in the sticks you’ll still find palaeontology museums.”

The trend is so pronounced that when planning for Queensland’s dinosaur trail, TEQ sent 25 of its operators on a tour of the United States to see how they do it.

Where to go: Our top 5 Paleo-tourism hotspots

Of greatest interest to fossil enthusiasts is ‘where do we go to see the very best.’

Cosmos asked the experts for their Top 5 sites, though we did cheat a little by cramming two or three sites into each ranking; more of a region-by-region Top 5, some easier to get to than others.

Here’s what we found; but remember: Where to stay and what to eat are important too, so do your research.

By j long riverleigh bones 850
Fossilised bones found at Riversleigh Fossil Site, Queensland. Credit: John Long
  1. Riversleigh Fossil Site – off-the-beaten track, north-west Queensland

A World Heritage listed Cenozoic era mammal site about 200km north of Mount Isa (check 4WD access). The guides encourage you to think “Tasmanian tigers, marsupial ‘lions’, a 15 million-year-old platypus and possums with sharp teeth.”

Potentially another World Heritage site, fossil imprints in rocks of the Flinders Ranges at the old Ediacara minefield were discovered by Reginald Sprigg in 1946, the first time fossilised remains of an entire community of soft-bodied creatures had been found. And the Emu Bay Shale site, boasting beautiful beaches nearby, comprises deposits from the Early Cambrian where its complete body fossils of some of the first skeletal organisms are considered the best examples in the Southern Hemisphere.

NSW has its own emerging dinosaur trail in the central west. A 4-hour drive from Sydney, Canowindra boasts the Age of Fishes Museum, built in the decades since the discovery in 1955 of thousands of fossilized fish—many new to science—in a shallow bed dating from the Devonian (360-370mya). About 120km north of Canowindra and of similar age, Wellington Caves offers underwater coral reefs, megafauna and First Nation’s stories from 50,000 years ago. North of Gulgong at McGraths Flat can be found a range of fragile and soft-bodied organisms normally missing from the fossil record, that demonstrate the shift in Australia’s climate from a rainforest 15 million years ago to now dry sheep country.

The Outback Triangle of Hughenden, Richmond and Winton are home to 98-million-year-old dinosaur bones, evidence of a dinosaur stampede, the largest Australian fossil collection, and ancient marine reptiles.  It preserves a history of the shallowing seaway that once covered parts of inland Australia during the Cretaceous Period. And 115km west of Winton is the site of the dinosaur stampede. Another 660km south is Eromanga, home to Australia’s largest dinosaur (named Cooper).

By j long kronosaurus korner richmond 850
Marine fossil museum, Kronosaurus Korner, which showcases nearly 1,150 unique fossil specimens in Richmond. Credit: John Long

The WA state heritage site tells us that “350 million years ago, strange fish swam in an ancient sea that covered the northwest of Western Australia. Today, the Gogo Fish Fossil Site is found within the rugged outcrops of a giant barrier reef now standing above grassland plains. The barrier reef forms limestone ranges extending for 350 kilometres, in an arc that flanks the present-day Kimberley ranges.” Less than 100 km north-west of Fitzroy Crossing and heritage listed, the reef provides dramatic evidence for the rise and fall of sea levels and is considered one of the best-preserved examples of its type in the world.

Outback grassland, with sparse green trees, and people walking in the distance.
Fossil hunting at the Gogo Fish Fossil Site, Kimberly Ranges, Western Australia. Credit: John Long

And our runner up, not quite as easily accessed or developed for tourism as some, is:

The MacDonnell Ranges, a low mountain range running east and west of Alice Springs preserve the time in the Ordovician Period when most groups of modern marine organisms started diversifying into the familiar forms of today. In particular, the rocks from most of the gorges that intersect these ranges preserve beautiful fossils, such as at Maloney Creek. Meanwhile, Alcoota lay 200km to the north-east of Alice Springs, where Smith writes that a “fossilised series of lakes preserved the remains of animal life from the late Miocene Epoch (8 million years ago).”

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