Finding dinosaur bones… from a plane?

by Joanne Wilkinson, Senior Fossil Preparator and Conservator

It sounds crazy but in 1998 that’s exactly what Queensland Museum palaeontologist Ralph Molnar did, with the assistance of Queensland Museum technician, Joanne Wilkinson. They were joined by American palaeontologists, Paul Sereno, an experienced dinosaur hunter, and his student, John Marco.

Paul Sereno, Joanne Wilkinson, Jon Marco and Ralph Molnar at Plevna Down lagoon, 1998

Well, of course they couldn’t actually see dinosaur bones from the plane but they could see the 95-97 million year old sediments of the Winton Formation which were just the right age to contain these bones. Dinosaurs had been found in similar sediments in Central Queensland, and the question was…. ‘Why had no bones ever been found in the south west of the state?’

 It was time to have a look at the geology, talk to the locals, and try to solve this mystery.

From a small plane the team spotted river banks and eroding hills where sediments were exposed. These are the best places to study geology up close. Property owners were contacted and in true western Queensland style the team was warmly welcomed.

Many kilometres of field surveying was completed and strong similarities with the fossil bearing sediments of Central Queensland were noted.

Joanne Wilkinson surveying the geology of the Eromanga region on Plevna Downs, 1998

Unfortunately, no bones were found on the trip but in a vast region like south west Queensland, and with only two weeks of surveying, it was an unlikely outcome. It was like finding a needle in a haystack.

But the seed had been planted and time would tell an amazing story. It would be 6 years later until the next chapter was to be written. One day, whilst mustering, a young boy found an unusual looking object which was later identified as a dinosaur bone. It was the first of hundreds to be discovered on Plevna Downs in the years to come.

The Mackenzie family remembered us from our visit and got in touch and the rest is history…. Read how Australia’s largest dinosaur, Australotian cooperensis, was discovered in 2007 here.