Category Archives: Marine Environments

A step in the right direction for Magnetic Island’s giant clams

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

Since February 2020, a team of local marine biologists have been monitoring 14 giant clams along the snorkel trails of Geoffrey Bay which were showing signs of severe bleaching.

The team returned again in March and observed that the level of bleaching and number of clams affected had sadly increased.

However, good news came this month when the team returned and reviewed the clams on 4 and 20 April.

All of the clams are regaining some colouration, the result of zooxanthellae algae returning to the mantle tissue. This is remarkable considering that many of the nearby reef-building corals are still stark white.

The seawater in Cleveland Bay has cooled to 27–28o C (recorded by the Australian Institute of Marine Science), down from 32o C in February 2020.

Some clams are recovering much faster than others. The most impressive recovery is by G1, which was 90% white on 15 March, 30% white by 4 April and only <5% white by 20 April.

N6 has also shown good recovery from 60% white on 20 Feb down to <5% by 20 April.

Others, like N4, have shown slower recovery, with approximately half the mantle still white.

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Partially (N5) and fully (N4) bleached clams at Nelly Bay on 7 March (top), 4 April (middle) and 20 April (bottom). N4 has gained significant colouration around the edges of its mantle, and N5 (top left) has returned to normal colouration.

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Partially bleached clams N6 (lower) & N7 (upper) on 7 March 2020 (top), 4 April (middle) and 20 April (bottom). Both have gained some colouration.

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Bleached (G1) and unbleached (G2) clams at Geoffrey Bay on 7 March 2020 (top), 4 April (middle) and 20 April (bottom). G1 has made a rapid recovery.

Table 1: Level of severe bleaching over time for each giant clam at Nelly Bay. Numbers in the table are % of the mantle tissue that is white.

DATE N1 N2 N3 N4 N5 N6 N7 N8
Feb 20 0 0 0 >90 0 60 0 0
March 7 >90 70 70 >90 0 50 0 0
March 15 >90 50 35 90 10 50 30 30
April 4 45 15 10 85 <5 20 20 20
April 20 45 15 0 50 0 <5 0 <5

Table 2: Level of severe bleaching over time for each giant clam at Geoffrey Bay. Numbers in the table are % of the mantle tissue that is white.

DATE G1 G2 G3 G4 G5 G6
Feb 20 70 0 50 25 50 0
March 7 80 0 70 25 70 0
March 15 90 0 90 25 50 0
April 4 30 0 70 10 25 0
April 20 <5 0 50 0 <5 0

More updates to follow as the team continue to monitor the clams’ recovery process.

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Site of the Geoffrey Bay snorkel trail with Townsville and Castle Hill to the South. Two of four yellow buoys marking the trail are in the foreground.  Image: Beat Lehmann

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.

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.

2nd blog update A
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).

2nd blog update B
Partially bleached clams (N6 & N7) at Nelly Bay snorkel trail, 7 March 2020.

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

2nd blog update C
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.

2nd blog update D Diver
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.

Nelly Bay Clams
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.

World Turtle Day

World Turtle Day is #Shellebrated globally on 23 May, to celebrate these incredible creatures, increase knowledge, raise awareness of the impact of plastic pollution, and to highlight the importance of protecting their disappearing habitats. Did you know six of the world’s seven marine turtle species are known from Queensland? You can read more on sea turtles here.

The Impact of Plastic Pollution

Sea turtle eating a styrofoam cup.

Every bit of plastic that has found its way into the ocean or is buried in landfill still exists. The global production of plastic has now reached 300 million tonnes a year with production doubling every 11 years. It is everywhere in our lives and is a major source of pollution. Around 8 to 12 million tonnes of plastic enter the sea every year and around 18,000 pieces can be found in every square kilometre of ocean.

WTD 40 plastic pieces from a turtle gut
This assortment of plastic was taken from the gut of a sub-adult Green Turtle from the Coral Sea and is made up of 40 pieces of soft plastic, 4 pieces of plastic thread and 6 pieces of hard plastic.

Plastic does not go away. It is extremely durable; a single use, plastic bottle can take centuries to break down. In doing so, it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces that are particularly hazardous to juvenile marine turtles which feed in surface waters and mistake floating plastic for food. This material can lead to gut blockages causing animals to starve and tiny pieces of plastic (microplastics), and the toxins they contain, are now passing through marine food chains.

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This image is of nylon fishing line removed from the throat of a Loggerhead Turtle that was beach-washed dead on Deadman’s Beach, North Stradbroke Island in September 1990.

The Hatchery

Did you meet the baby turtles at the Hatchery during World Science Festival Brisbane? If you missed out, head to Facebook to watch them hatch here and see the little dudes released into the Australian Current, 20km offshore from the Sunshine Coast as part of the Museum’s conversation initiative here.

Queensland Museum Senior Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians, Patrick Couper, who oversees the World Science Festival Brisbane’s Turtle Hatchery, holding fibreglass casts of hatchling turtles (Green Turtle in left hand, Loggerhead in right hand).

Wild State highlights Queensland’s unique animals and habitats, focusing on five environments including teeming marine life. Explore how we can protect and preserve our precious natural world for future generations by stopping by the gallery on level 4.

Sharing nature’s gems for World Wildlife Day

World Wildlife Day, held annually on 3 March, was created to celebrate and raise awareness of the world’s wild animals and plants. The day has now become the most important global annual event dedicated to wildlife. This year’s theme is “Life below water: for people and planet”. Oceans harbour a rich variety of communities and a wealth of strange and beautiful creatures, each with its own peculiar adaptations to underwater life. Right on our doorstep are two world-class marine hot spots – the unique waters of south-east Queensland, and of course, our iconic Great Barrier Reef.

To mark the occasion we are sharing some of our Wild State vector artwork and spoke to Queensland Museum Graphic Designer, Baden Philips, about his design. Baden said the most important thing when considering the artwork was that it reflects the Wild State gallery concept of the environment and the animal being equally as important as one another. With these rich and unique environments shrinking and vanishing, there is a significant threat to the animals who call it home, with many becoming endangered or even extinct.

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Baden therefore wanted to create the artwork to be reminiscent of a jewellery advertisement, depicting the animals as rare jewels cushioned by a rich and luxurious landscape.  To achieve this jewel-like quality, Baden chose low poly imagery (a polygon mesh in 3D computer graphics that has a relatively small number of polygons) and used Adobe Illustrator to create the drawing on top of the original image. Most of the designs are highly detailed, with each one representing hours of careful work.

Read on for more information about the beautiful animals and habitats that make Queensland one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. 

The Arid Outback

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Scorching summer days, freezing cold winter nights and dry almost all year round. But despite these seemingly adverse conditions, it is not devoid of life. Many animals, from large kangaroos to tiny invertebrates, have developed remarkable adaptations that enable them to survive in this extreme environment with very little water. Some travel great distances to drink, others get moisture from the food they eat, and some can control their body heat and limit water loss.

The Bush

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Much of Queensland is covered by open forests and woodlands, which have long been described as ‘The Bush’. This is a place of light and, even when the trees are at their densest, the tree tops are well-spaced and allow direct sunlight to flood the often grassy floor. Bush animals rely heavily on the trees and shrubs for food and shelter, with some animals and plants evolving co-dependent adaptations that enhance their survival. 

The Rainforest

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Lush, dense plant growth, plentiful rainfall and litter-strewn ground – rainforests are one of the richest habitats on Earth. They have a dense ‘closed’ tree canopy that blocks sunlight and shades a litter-strewn forest floor, creating a multitude of spaces for moisture dependent animals to live. 

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Southern Cassowaries are primarily found in lowland tropical rainforest, where conditions are hot and humid with frequent heavy rain. The Wet Tropics of North Queensland has 1,165 species in 6,300 square kilometres – more plant species than Finland, which is over 50 times its size. 

The Coast

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Many animals make the shore their permanent home despite challenging conditions such as deadly heat, little oxygen, pounding waves and, more significantly, our interference with this increasingly fragile junction of land and sea. Horn-eyed Ghost Crabs (Ocypode ceratophthalma) are fast running scavengers that are known to prey on baby turtles in tropical waters. 

The Ocean

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Oceans harbour a rich variety of communities and a wealth of strange and beautiful creatures, each with its own peculiar adaptations to underwater life. Right on our doorstep are two world-class marine hotspots – the unique waters of south-east Queensland, and of course, our iconic Great Barrier Reef.

Head to the World Wildlife Day website for more information on how you can get involved, and don’t forget to visit your native friends at Wild State during your next trip to the Museum!

Celebrating women in science

We celebrate the achievements of women, known and unknown, remembered and forgotten, who have forged the way for those of us in science today, and to give an opportunity for children: girls and boys, to choose role models in science – Princess Nisreen El-Hashemite, BSc MSc MD PhD

This coming 11 February is International Day of Women and Girls in Science and to celebrate we’re featuring some of the incredible scientists and staff involved in the scientific field across the Queensland Museum Network. Their hard work and excellent contributions often help inspire women and young girls who are interested in following a path in science. We delve into why they chose to get involved in science and what they’ve found most rewarding.

#goals #inspo

Marissa McNamara
Lab Manager and Collection Manager (marine for crustacea)

International Day of Women and Girls in Science - Marissa McNamara

I work with preserved crabs, prawns, lobsters and other amazing creatures from around Australia, and I get to see the incredible diversity and beauty of life every day. I also help members of the public identify crustaceans they find (often on the beach or the reef), and it’s fantastic to see what people discover. I feel like I learn something new every day! As an added bonus, for Halloween I get to dress up and show off our ‘creepiest’ looking specimens!

Rebekah Collins
Manager, SparkLab and Discovery Centre

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It is really rewarding to create experiences that support visitor learning, hearing people share their memories, stories and connections with the Museum and the Sciencentre, and seeing how much it means to them, especially those who later go on to study or be involved with science.

Joanne Wilkinson
Senior Fossil Preparator and Geosciences Volunteer Coordinator

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At age 9 I asked for a Chemistry set for Christmas. That’s when my love of litmus paper and the test tubes began. Many years later, combining my interest in fossils and my love of test tubes and laboratories, I find myself Senior Fossil Preparator at Queensland Museum. The most rewarding part of working in the fossil scientific community is the discovery of new sites and new species which add to fossil record of Australia and ultimately to the fossil record of the planet.

Susan Wright
Collection Manager, Terrestrial Environments (Entomology)

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The best part of my job as a Collection Manager is that I get to help a wide range of people, from scientists to artists, to conduct fascinating (sometimes bizarre) research regarding insects, our collections and the people that contribute to them. I learn something new every day.

Chae Swindell
Learning Officer, Future Makers

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The most rewarding part of my role is using our collections and research to develop resources that inspire and excite students, teachers and the community about science!

Christine Lambkin
Curator of Entomology

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I became an entomologist and evolutionary biologist because I am fascinated by the interaction between the incredible beauty and unbelievable diversity of insects, and our attempts to mathematically estimate the relationships between species based on morphology and genetics.

Rochelle Lawrence
Research Assistant and Honorary, Vertebrate Palaeontology

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I chose to get involved in science because of my fascination with the natural world, especially our unique fossil fauna and how they can help us better understand the present and impacts or future environmental change.

Kristen Spring
Collection Manager, Geosciences

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I got into science because although there is too much to discover in one lifetime, I was certainly determined to try!

Susan Turner
DAAD Professor and Honorary Research Fellow, Geosciences

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I got hooked at around eight years old by reading a book on dinosaurs – the joy of finding the right mentor led me into vertebrate palaeontology in my twenties. Five decades on I still get excited knowing I am the first person to see a new fossil specimen, and sometimes have the joy of identifying and naming it for posterity.

Jessica Worthington Wilmer 
Research Fellow and Molecular Identities Lab Manager

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I became a biologist (evolutionary geneticist) to better understand the world I live in and to use that knowledge to help save threatened and endangered species.

Carole J Burrow
Honorary Research Fellow

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The most rewarding aspect of my work in vertebrate palaeontology is working out new information about very old things (300 to 400 million year old fossils) to help our understanding of how the earliest back-boned animals with jaws are related to each other.

Amy Boulding
Head, Lifelong Learning 

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Amy (back) and Rebekah officially opening the doors to SparkLab

I originally got into science because I loved that I could ask lots of questions and go find the answers by getting my hands dirty and exploring the natural world. I’m super proud of now leading the Lifelong Learning team, and seeing all of the ways that my team create and facilitate those life-changing, enlightening, inspiring moments with people on all different themes and stories within the Museum.

Sue-Ann Watson
Senior Curator (Marine Invertebrates)

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Making new discoveries is the most rewarding part of science. Being the first to know something is really exciting.

Barbara Baehr
Arachnologist and “Australian Spider Lady”

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Barbara with her daughter

I chose to get involved in science because it’s great to be at the forefront of discoveries and I love to be a role model for my daughters.

Jessica Johnson 
Learning Officer, SparkLab, and Forensic Scientist

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I chose science when I held a real human brain in my hands and realised that this was a person, that 1.5kgs was everything that made someone them, and there’s nothing more rewarding then seeing the look on a child’s face when they understand something new and exciting about science.

Claire Chakrabarti
Learning Officer, SparkLab

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I was the child that always asked why and I chose to pursue a career in science as it provided the answers.

Susan Wightley 
Information Officer, Discovery Centre 

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I have always been fascinated by the huge variety of animals, the adaptations to their environment and how they interact with it and each other. I am in my dream job helping people understand and appreciate the complexity and awesomeness of the natural environment around them.

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Reconstructing the Kronosaurus

Kronosaurus queenslandicus was the largest predatory reptile to swim the seas of western Queensland 105 million years ago. This icon of the paleontological world is thought to have grown up to 11 metres in length, with around two metres of that dedicated to its unusually large skull, containing a mammoth set of jaws and dozens of enormous teeth.

Recently, an opportunity arose for the Queensland Museum to add to the State Collection with the acquisition of two lower jaw pieces from a large individual Kronosaurus. Although the Kronosaurus is an iconic animal, surprisingly little is known about its biology, with skulls and jaws a relatively rare find.

Kronosaurus queenslandicus was named in 1924 by Queensland Museum palaeontologist and former museum Director, Heber Longman, based on a piece of jawbone that was discovered near Hughenden, in central Queensland. It was named after the Greek Titan Kronos; so horrible that he ate his own children. Kronosaurus is a pliosaur, an extinct short-necked marine reptile. Its powerful jaws – which worked in a similar way to a crocodile’s – contain rows of large conical teeth, the biggest of which are nearly 30 centimetres long. Kronosaurus was a fierce predator – remains of its stomach contents found in central western Queensland indicate that it fed on turtles and other long-necked marine reptiles. Kronosaurus fossils have been found in the sediments deposited by the inland seas and turned to rock, ranging in age from 112-100 Million years, during the Early Cretaceous Period.

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This particular specimen was found by a private collector near Boulia in western Queensland and, through negotiations with Dr Andrew Rozefelds, Head of Geosciences, Queensland Museum, was acquired through generous Queensland Museum Foundation donations directed towards object acquisition. The jaw adds to the Queensland Museum’s collection of Kronosaurus specimens. The acquisition of the specimen will ensure that this important piece of Queensland’s geoheritage is preserved in the State Collection for perpetuity. Importantly, it will also provide an opportunity for both researchers and the broader community to get up close to this fascinating specimen.

But as is the case with most specimens of this nature, the jaw was not in perfect condition, which meant that certain work needed to be done before the object could be properly studied, displayed and stored safely within the collection. The main goal for the Geosciences team was to cradle the pieces of fossil as best possible, whilst demonstrating the aspects of the jaw that were missing, especially its teeth. Senior Technical Officer, Ms Debra Lewis took on this meticulous and detailed work.

To present the jaw in a life-like pose whilst also safeguarding it from damage, Debra began work on a bespoke base that would serve the dual purpose of supporting the specimen whilst allowing it to be displayed. Debra said that creating such a base is a lengthy process due to how customised it needs to be.

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“The base is made of timber but each one contains an individual cradle sculpted from polymer plaster to suit the weight, angle and intricacies of each piece of jaw. The cradle was glued to the timber and filled in with expandable polyurethane foam, which was then sanded off to create the shape of the base’s sides. Over that, two layers of fibreglass were carefully applied to give the structure strength. The final step was a coat of paint in a specially chosen shade that would not detract from the ‘hero’, our Kronosaurus jaw.”

As the teeth and part of the bone were missing, careful work was done to demonstrate this as accurately as possible. The teeth were made using 3-D modelling and printing – technology that Dr Scott Hocknull, Senior Curator, Geosciences, has developed within Queensland Museum and has become a key feature of his research and engagement work.

“In this case, the benefits of this technology served as a huge time saver,” said Scott.

The usual method for producing replicas is creating a plasticine sculpture and using that to make a mould and then cast from it. In this case, the process would need to be repeated for each individual tooth – all 16 of them – which Debra and Scott estimate could have taken a month of work or more. The same result using 3-D modelling and printing took about 36 hours, with most of this made up of printing time rather than manual labour. This is achieved through digitally modelling one tooth, then digitally sculpting a 3-D model of each of the 16 teeth. Using photographs of the original tooth, a 3-D model of it was created, which can then be modified and printed out. Debra then hand painted each tooth in a colour that matched the remaining bone. The final piece of the puzzle was to come up with a way that the teeth could be displayed so that it was obvious to viewers which part was original fossil and which was a reconstruction.

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“Part of the bone was missing, so rather than replicating this on top of the original, we decided to use clear perspex rods to place the teeth at the correct height and show the position of the teeth as they would have been in the jaw,” said Debra.

This was done by gluing each newly made replica tooth to a clear rod and placing it into a small indentation drilled into the matrix (a build-up of rock where the tooth would have sat) so that the rod would fit snugly and can easily be removed and replaced. So where to from here for our “revamped” Kronosaurus jaw?

The Geosciences team hope that the specimen will go on display, possibly within the permanent Lost Creatures exhibition at Queensland Museum, where it can be enjoyed by visitors. It is currently available to researchers and is being studied by a PhD student, who has been 3-D scanning the pieces of the jaw to reconstruct the animal digitally and learn more about its palaeobiology. Of course, a scientist’s work is never truly done – there is always more to learn and new examples of these extinct species to be unearthed, which in turn will bring new opportunities for research and discovery.

“We’ve known about the enigmatic Kronosaurus for a long time – hopefully we can continue to find out more about this icon of the Cretaceous inland sea,” said Scott.