Know your dinosaur bones

Thousands of visitors to Queensland Museum have now discovered the sixteen full-scale dinosaur skeletons on display in Dinosaurs of Patagonia, however it can come as a surprise to some of our guests that these displays are not the actual fossils assembled into standing structures.

The process of discovering, preparing and assembling dinosaur bones is not as simple as it may seem. Here, we will dig deeper into the reality of working with fossils dating back millions of years.

Layers of challenges

First, it is important to understand that dinosaur fossils are incredibly rare and fragile.

Fossilisation occurs when the remains of an organism are buried in sediment and mineral-rich water seeps into the bones, replacing the organic material with minerals over time. This process is slow and requires specific conditions, such as low oxygen levels, to occur. As a result, only a small fraction of the organisms that have lived on Earth have been fossilised, and even fewer have been preserved in a complete state.

Like many dinosaur fossil discoveries, the fossils from Argentina were found as fragments, scattered over vast and remote areas. Palaeontologists from the Museum of Palaeontology Egidio Feruglio (MEF) were challenged to carefully excavate and study each bone, documenting the location and orientation of each, to attempt to piece the skeletons together in a lab as completely as they could.

Adding to the challenge, many dinosaur bones degrade and lose structure during the fossilisation process and due to geological activity, such as erosion or tectonic movement over millions of years. This makes it even more difficult and, in many cases, completely impossible to match bones from different individuals or even from different parts of the same individual. As you can see from the diagram of the dig site below, bones from different species were found in the same patch of land.

Imagine combining two or three boxes of different puzzle pieces, throwing half of them away, then burying the rest in a huge sandpit. It is the role of palaeontologists to carefully find, decipher and reconstruct the puzzle pieces as accurately as they can.

This diagram shows the fragmented placement of the fossil discovery, with bones from different individuals in the same area.
The dig site in Argentina where palaeontologists worked to uncover, protect and extract dinosaur fossils, including the 2.4 metre femur of Patagotitan, the world’s largest dinosaur.
A fossilised vertebrae from Patagotitan in a plaster jacket.
The femur of Patagotitan was discovered sticking out of the ground by a farmer. It measures 2.4 metres and weights almost 700kgs. It is the largest dinosaur fossil ever discovered.

The long, careful process

The fragility of real dinosaur bones means that they must be handled and displayed with extreme care. Exposure to light, humidity and temperature changes can cause the bones to deteriorate or even crumble, and any movement or stress can cause irreparable damage. However, with careful excavation, study, and reconstruction, palaeontologists can provide a fascinating and educational glimpse into the world of dinosaurs.

Dinosaur skeletons are complex structures, and without joints and connections between bones, displaying real fossils in a standing structure is rarely possible. Even small errors in positioning can result in a distorted or unstable display, jeopardising the integrity of the fossils and safety of people viewing them.

To overcome this challenge, museums around the world use a blend of art and technology to generate replicas of the bones to construct the skeleton displays, which can be adjusted to create more accurate representations of dinosaurs and be safely shared with everyone.

For example, the sixteen skeletons in Dinosaurs of Patagonia are made up of an iron inner frame covered in a cast of polyurethane, resin and several layers of fire retardant, paint and polish. Some pieces are also 3D printed.

The team from MEF assembling the cast skeleton of Tyrannotitan ready for exhibition display.

There are 28 authentic fossils featured in the exhibition distributed over 12 fossil stations including the femur and three vertebrae from Patagotitan, and a tooth from a Theropod.

Once we consider the challenges above, it becomes clear why the discovery of these dinosaur fossils and bones from Patagotitan in particular is widely hailed as one of the most significant paleontological discoveries ever made.

Circumstances and environmental conditions have aligned over many millions of years to reveal these treasures from our prehistoric past, treasures that incite wonder and imagination for curious minds worldwide.

Visit Dinosaurs of Patagonia, Level 3 of Queensland Museum until 2 October 2023.

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