The last dicynodont? A 100 year old fossil mystery with bite

Dicynodonts were a group of plant eating stem-mammals (often called mammal-like reptiles), which with their toothless beaks and tusks looked a bit like a mix between a hippo and a tortoise, without the shell.

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Lisowicia bojani (dicynodont). Image credit: Dmitry Bogdanov / CC By 3.0

These animals were the most diverse and abundant herbivores in the second half of the Permian and during the Triassic periods, around 270 and 201 million years ago, after which they went extinct worldwide. Or at least so we thought…

In early 1914, a pastoralist in northern Queensland in Australia picked up some pieces of fossil bone in a gully on his property, which he donated to the Queensland Museum.

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First page of the letter sent from Mr F.L. Berney to the Queensland Museum notifying of a shipment of fossils from Mr R. Pool, consisting of a partial macropod femur (QMF559) and a left diprotodontid maxilla (QMF660)

One of the fragments in particular, which preserved a large curved tooth, showed some resemblance to dicynodonts found in South Africa. However, in the area where the fossil was found, there are no Permian or Triassic rocks, only Cretaceous, which are nearly 100 million years younger.

It’s similarity to dicynodonts and it likely originating from Cretaceous rocks, caused researchers in the early 2000’s to conclude that dicynodonts had found a refuge from the end-Triassic extinction, in Australia!

This was not a far-fetched idea, as a group of amphibians called temnospondyls had already been shown to have done exactly that. While they had gone extinct elsewhere at the end of the Triassic, they had survived for millions of years later in Australia. The only problem was that the Cretaceous dicynodont material was very fragmented, causing contention amongst palaeontologists as to its real biological origin.

A study led by Senior Curator of Palaeontology for the Museum of Tropical Queensland and James Cook University Dr Espen Knutsen, published in Gondwana Research, looked closer at this possibly highly significant material using both traditional and state-of-the-art analytical techniques.

The results show that rather than belonging to a Cretaceous dicynodont, the fossils are that of a much more recent diprotodontid, a wombat-like animal the size of a hippo, which lived in Australia around 2.5 million years ago.

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Diprotodon optatum (Diprotodon) Illustrator: Anne Musser © Anne Musser 

By searching through 100-year-old museum archives, the study found that another fossil was found by the same pastoralist, only months prior in the same gully, meters away from the dicynodont fragments. This fossil, however, was from the left upper jaw of a diprotodontid.

Letters from the pastoralist to Queensland Museum, states that he believed the fossils all belonged to the same individual. To test this, the researchers analysed the trace element concentrations in the fossilised bone. By comparing the elemental signatures of the bones, the researchers showed unequivocally that the fossils came from the same rock unit, and likely the same individual.

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Letter from Mr R. Pool of Alderley Station to the Queensland Museum regarding another shipment of specimens.

What more, after CT scanning the dicynodont material at the Australian Synchrotron, it became clear that its anatomy did not match that of dicynodonts, but rather that of diprotodontids.

The give-away came in the form of the distribution of enamel on the large tooth, which only covered the front. This is what is normally seen in the front teeth of diprotodontids and other mammals with so-called ever-growing incisors.

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Another interesting find was a pit in the bone just in front of the large incisor, the result of an abscess. As the fossil remains suggests the animal was a young individual, it is likely this infection led to an agonising early death.

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The diprotodontid fossil on display as part of the 2019 exhibition Natural Curiosity: Discovering the secrets of Queensland’s greatest collections at Museum of Tropical Queensland

Dr Espen Knusten is the Senior Curator, Palaeontology at Museum of Tropical Queensland

UPDATE ON MAGNETIC ISLAND’S GIANT CLAMS

This is the 2nd installment of a blog monitoring a bleaching event currently occurring in reefs off Magnetic Island, 14kms from the coast of Townsville in North Queensland

Unfortunately by 7 March, approximately two weeks since the last inspection, the bleaching of the giant clams along the snorkel trails of Magnetic Island had worsened.

In just a few short weeks, the number of giant clams (Tridacna gigas) on the snorkel trails that were bleached white had increased from two to five.

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Partially (N5) and fully (N4) bleached clams at Nelly Bay snorkel trail, 7 March 2020.

A further eight were pale and/or blotched, a less extreme form of bleaching (e.g. N5, N6 & N7).

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Partially bleached clams (N6 & N7) at Nelly Bay snorkel trail, 7 March 2020.

Only one of the fourteen giant clams had normal colouration (G2).

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Bleached (G1) and unbleached (G2) clams at Geoffrey Bay snorkel trail, 7 March 2020.

Scientist from Queensland Museum and Magnetic Island monitored the clams again on 15 March 2020 and little change had occurred.

More updates will follow from the team monitoring their progress.

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Dr Rick Braley measuring giant clams (Tridacna gigas) at Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef.
Giant clams can reach more than a metre in length and weigh more than 100 kg.

Written and Compiled by Dr Robyn Cumming, Collection Manager (marine) and Bryozoan taxonomist, Biodiversity & Geosciences Program, Queensland Museum and Dr Rick Braley, Aquasearch, Magnetic Island.

North Queensland giant clams under stress

Giant clams are large and beautiful reef animals, the largest bivalve molluscs in the world, commonly reaching more than a metre in length.

Like reef-building corals, they have symbiotic algae in their tissues, and under extreme heat stress can bleach like corals do.

This results in the symbiotic algae being ejected from their tissues and they turn white.

Currently, a giant clam bleaching event is unfolding at Magnetic Island, 14km off the coast of Townsville, North Queensland.

Inshore waters of Cleveland Bay (the stretch of water between Townsville and Magnetic Island) reached 32 degrees in February 2020, resulting in bleached clams and corals.

Scientists from Magnetic Island and Queensland Museum are now closely monitoring fourteen 34-year-old giant clams in Geoffrey Bay and Nelly Bay which feature on the Tourism Magnetic Island snorkel trails (six at Geoffrey Bay and eight at Nelly Bay).

Two of these animals are severely bleached white and in danger of dying whilst the other twelve are pale – a clear sign of heat stress.

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Bleached white giant clam at Nelly Bay snorkel trail, 20 Feb 2020.

These clams have survived several coral bleaching events over their 34 years, including in 1998, 2002 and 2016/17, but have only shown signs of bleaching once before — in 1998 and were able to make a full recovery.

The clams were bred in 1986 at Seafarm, Innisfail, and raised at the giant clam farm at Orpheus Island (Palm Islands) by Dr Rick Braley, marine scientist and Magnetic Island resident.

When the clam farm closed in 1990 some clams were re-homed to Magnetic Island, and in 2013 fourteen of them were placed on the snorkel trails for all to enjoy.

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Healthy giant clams at Nelly Bay along the snorkel trail

Many locals and visitors have viewed these iconic animals whilst snorkeling Magnetic Island over the past seven years and their welfare is a concern for scientists, residents and tourists alike.

We will monitor the fourteen giant clams on the snorkel trails and we will continue to post photos with updates on their condition in this blog series.

Written and Compiled by Dr Robyn Cumming, Collection Manager (marine) and Bryozoan taxonomist, Biodiversity & Geosciences Program, Queensland Museum and Dr Rick Braley, Aquasearch, Magnetic Island.

The women of Cobb & Co

“Who will forget the meal served at Loder’s mail change? Roasted goat, prickly jam and jelly, splendid home-made bread, to say nothing of the hot scones and ‘nanny’s butter’, which made up a real ‘rich’ meal, and one that cheered the heart of the traveller for the next stage of the journey.”

– William Lees, on the Loders of Waldegrove change station near Surat QLD, 1916.

Cobb & Co coach drivers like Whistling Tom Elms, Flash Harry Bruce and Let ‘Er Go Gallagher were almost legendary in their lifetime, but for every coach driver there was a host of other workers keeping Cobb & Co’s coaches and horses on the roads. Grooms at stables and bush change stations harnessed, watered and fed the horses and cleaned the yards. The cooks not only fed the passengers, they grew the vegetables, fed the chickens and collected the eggs, milked the cow or goat, separated the cream and churned the butter. The cook might have even shot the wallaby or cockatoos in the stew.

Couples like Mr and Mrs Loder at Waldegrove ran the horse change between them. If there were no men around the women got on and did everything regardless. Mrs Fox and her four daughters ran the changing station at Boonoo Boonoo, on the Warwick to Tenterfield route. Women publicans and their families ran many of the country hotels where Cobb & Co’s parched and weary passengers stayed overnight. Their hotels acted as booking agents for Cobb & Co as well. Women filled vital roles in Cobb & Co’s day-to-day operations ‘on the ground’.

Continue reading The women of Cobb & Co

Uncovering Pacific Pasts: Histories of archaeology in Oceania

As part of the Collective Biography of Archaeology in the Pacific (CBAP) Project (led by the Australian National University in Canberra), the Museum of Tropical Queensland is currently participating in the worldwide exhibition, Uncovering Pacific Pasts: Histories of archaeology in Oceania. The collaborative display is featured in over 30 collecting institutions around the world, and explores the ideas, people and networks that were pivotal in the development of archaeology. The displays show how social interactions continue to affect the ways in which we interpret and engage with the history of the Pacific.

The Museum of Tropical Queensland chose to feature a range of stone adzes from HMS Pandora and investigate what the objects themselves can tell us about who made, used and traded them.

Polynesian stone tools excavated from HMS Pandora (1791)

Twenty five basalt adze blades and five basalt pounders were excavated from HMS Pandora, from the area thought to be the officer’s storeroom. These Polynesian tools give insight into the movement of objects in the 18th century.

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Stone adzes excavated from HMS Pandora

The late 18th century was a time of burgeoning exploration, colonisation and settlement by Europeans throughout Oceania. Driven by the high demand for ‘artificial curiosities’ in Europe, sailors on the early voyages made a habit of collecting souvenirs or ‘curios’ from islands in the Pacific. Museums and private collectors sought out these prized objects, with many items forming the basis of early European museum collections.

Objects often become disconnected from information about where or how they were collected, and the people who originally owned and used them. The Pandora collection, however, is different. Documentary evidence – the captain’s log – links the stone tools to specific regions in the Pacific islands where Pandora stopped to search for the HMAV Bounty mutineers.

While the captain’s logbook does not specifically mention the crew actively collecting the ‘curiosities’ during the voyage, the excavated assemblage is evidence that trade and exchange occurred between the crew and the local peoples.

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Made from volcanic rock, the adze blades were usually attached or hafted to a wooden handle with plaited coconut fibre

Mid-20th century archaeological investigation placed emphasis on the shape and form of adzes, suggesting that certain types of adze originated from different island groups across Oceania. These studies also suggest that the location of where the artefact was found is also where the stone was sourced and the tool manufactured. This method of investigation is known as typological analysis, and it identifies the majority of adzes from Pandora as coming from the Society Islands where the crew spent many weeks during the voyage. The remaining adzes are thought to have originated from the Southern Cook Islands, where Pandora visited Aitutaki and Palmerston Island. Interestingly, typological analysis of one style of adze identifies it as originating from Tubuai, an island visited by Bounty but not Pandora.

More recently, researchers used a non-destructive geo-chemical technique called portable x-ray fluorescence (pXRF) to determine the composition of the stone tools and identify quarry sources. These results open up more interesting questions. Did each island group have their own quarry where they dug out the stone for their tools or was the unshaped rock moved between the different island groups? If this occurred, what can we learn about Polynesian voyaging, social networks and exchange throughout the Pacific?

Soon, we will be able to better understand how these objects moved throughout Oceania, prior to their journey on Pandora. The results of these studies are forthcoming.

Alison Mann, Assistant Collection Manager, Museum of Tropical Queensland

This display is now on at Museum of Tropical Queensland from 1 March 2020.

To see what other objects are on display around the world and the links between them please visit uncoveringpacificpasts.org