Fossils unearthed in outback Queensland more than a decade ago have been officially identified as Australia’s smallest sauropod.
The juvenile Diamantinasaurus matildae, nicknamed “Ollie”, is the third of its species to be discovered and roamed the earth some 95 million years ago.
The rare discovery was made by a sheep grazier near Winton in western Queensland in 2012 and took researchers years to excavate and analyse.
It is the first juvenile sauropod to ever be found in Australia.
The plant-eating dinosaur is estimated to have measured about 11 metres in length and weighed 4.2 tonnes— roughly the size of an adult elephant — at the time of its death.
“So even though we’re talking about a little baby, he’s not actually that small,” palaeontologist Samantha Rigby said.
Adult sauropods measured between 20m to 30m in length.
“Some of the bones in his body weren’t fused, so we know that [Ollie] was a juvenile,” Ms Rigby said.
Dozens of fossils were unearthed during the excavation process, including thoracic vertebrae, ribs, a scapula, a humerus, a thumb claw and a femur.
Ms Rigby, who is the lead author of the research paper published last week and a masters student at Swinburne University, said the discovery would help researchers understand how the species grew.
“I spent a really long time comparing Ollie with all of the adult specimens here in Winton and we found that Ollie is not an exact copy of the adult,” she said.
“The limb bones of this juvenile titanosaur grew at a more rapid rate than its back and shoulder bones.
“The bones are also narrower in width when compared with the robust limb bones of an adult Diamantinasaurus.”
The discovery suggests that, like humans, baby sauropods would have changed as they grew older.
“Ollie’s limbs were a lot more overgrown and as he grew up, he grew into his limbs,” Ms Rigby said.
“He would have looked a bit weird with really long legs and a small body.”
It is not clear how Ollie died, but researchers believe it is likely he became stuck in mud near a watering hole and sank.
“For us, it means that fossils below the surface are preserved quite well and in good condition,” she said.
Lifelong dream realised
Ms Rigby, from Brisbane, fell in love with dinosaurs when she travelled to Winton as a teenager.
“I visited the Australian Age of Dinosaurs museum when I was 16 as a birthday present from my grandma,” she said.
The trip sparked a lifelong ambition.
“I knew from then that this was the place for me, and that I was going to end up one day being a part of the team,” she said.
Over the past several years, Ms Rigby and a team of researchers at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs have scanned the ancient fossils to create 3D images.
“It’s really important for us to be able to compare what we’re finding here and see how that relates to other sauropod species around the world so we can understand how they evolved,” Ms Rigby said.
“I’m really lucky that I was given the opportunity to study the first juvenile sauropod in Australia.”
Boost to dino-tourism
Ollie’s bones are now part of the sauropod collection at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs in Winton.
The centre’s founder David Elliott is confident the discovery will draw in tourists from across the country — and even the world.
Paleo-tourism is already booming across western Queensland and operators believe the lifting of state and international borders will lead to more crowds.
“Now that the borders aren’t closed, I should expect the numbers will be just as good this year,” Mr Elliott said.
“You never really know, but I’m optimistic that it will be a good year.”