Queensland graziers unearth 100m-year-old plesiosaur remains likened to Rosetta Stone

Amateur fossil hunters find skull connected to body of marine giant elasmosaur for the first time in Australia

A group of female graziers from outback Queensland who hunt fossils in their downtime have uncovered the remains of a 100m-year-old creature that palaeontologists are likening to the Rosetta Stone for its potential to unlock the discovery of several new species of prehistoric marine giant.

One of the “Rock Chicks” – as the amateur palaeontologists call themselves – uncovered the fossilised remains of the long-necked plesiosaur, known as an elasmosaur, while searching her western Queensland cattle station in August.

This was the first time that an elasmosaur skull has been found connected to its body in Australia.

The information that provides could allow palaeontologists to decipher other fossils held in museums, just as the Rosetta Stone, with its three scripts, allowed philologists to crack ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

At between five- and seven-metres long the juvenile elasmosaur was not yet fully grown before it died.
At between five- and seven-metres long the juvenile elasmosaur was not yet fully grown before it died. Photograph: The Guardian

The trio had already found another plesiosaur among other significant fossil finds in the weeks leading up to the moment when Cassandra Prince saw a head looking up at her from the dry earth.

“I’m like, no, you know, this is not real,” Prince said. “And then I look down again and I’m like, holy hell, I think that’s a skull looking up at me.”

Such a fossil, which has been kept under wraps until now, is globally rare, according to Dr Espen Knutsen, the senior curator of palaeontology at the Queensland Museum.

Prince was in regular contact with Knutsen at the time of her discovery, sending him pictures of her and sister Cynthia and cousin Sally’s other finds. Instantly, though, the palaeontologist knew this one was special.

The museum already holds the skull of an elasmosaur its collection, along with several bodies. But a skull connected to a body has proved elusive.

This is largely to do with the distinctive anatomy of elasmosaur. The marine reptiles probably grew to around eight metres in length and had tiny heads atop very, very long necks.

“A lot of it is neck,” Knutsen said. “At least half, if not two-thirds of the entire body length [of an elasmosaur] is mostly neck.”

When an elasmosaur died, its decomposing body would swell with gas that made it rise to the surface, where it would float at the mercy of tides and scavengers. A metres-long gap between body and head meant these body parts would rarely sink to the same spot once the gas dissipated.

This particular elasmosaur had its skull, neck and front half of the body all preserved together – but the back half of its body is missing.

Cattlewoman Cassandra Prince and palaeontologist Espen Knutsen.
Cassandra Prince and palaeontologist Espen Knutsen at the site of the discovery. Photograph: The Guardian

Knutsen suggested the elasmosaur may have been “bitten in half” by the apex predator of its day: a 10-metre, 11-tonne kronosaur. Such a puncture, he said, would have caused the rest of the elasmosaur corpse to sink instantly to the bottom of what was then an inland sea 50 metres deep.

It is an initial theory Knutsen’s team of palaeontologists will tease out over coming years as they hope to unravel the story of this five- to seven-metre juvenile they’ve called the Little Prince, in honour of the person who found it.

But that work is likely to also shed light on many other prehistoric beasts that swam central Queensland during the Cretaceous period, when the now arid grasslands formed part of the supercontinent Gondwanaland and were submerged beneath a vast inland sea upon whose shores dinosaurs roamed.

While only one species can currently be deciphered from the remains already found in Australia, Knutsen is confident that many different kinds of elasmosaurs shared that prehistoric sea.

A skull is a key to unlocking the difference between those species. Not only was the single skull found in Queensland – prior to the discovery of Little Prince – separated from its body, it had been squashed flat by the weight of earth that covered it.

The skull and body that Prince found, however, is three-dimensionally preserved, allowing a much richer insight into the anatomy and way of life of the elasmosaur.

Scientists have wondered whether the prehistoric reptiles used their teeth to filter feed crustaceans and bivalves from the ocean floor, and their big flippers to slowly cruise along migration routes as whales do today.

Knutsen hopes Little Prince could shed light on those questions, while enabling paleontologists to describe several species from the disparate remains already held within the museum.

“We will be able to unravel all that taxonomy that has eluded us up until now,” Knutsen said.


Joe Hinchliffe

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Locals alarmed as Queensland haven to rare tree species to be sold off by CSIRO
The arboretum was closed to the public in October last year and is being ‘vacated in preparation for divestment’

Aaron Smith

02, Dec, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Queensland police allowed sexist and racist attitudes to flourish – advocates are worried about its $100m ‘reward’
As hard questions are asked about Queensland police’s leadership, concerns are raised about a new focus on recruitment

Ben Smee

25, Nov, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Melbourne Museum acquires world’s most complete triceratops skeleton in ‘immense’ dinosaur deal
Unlike the ‘dime a dozen’ T-Rex, there are only a handful of near-complete triceratops skeletons in the world – and one is coming to Australia

Stephanie Convery

02, Dec, 2020 @4:12 AM

Article image
Head of Queensland police First Nations unit investigated for alleged racism
Exclusive: Senior Indigenous elders have previously referred to Kerry Johnson’s ‘incomprehensible incompetence’

Ben Smee

16, Nov, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Queensland and Victoria resist push to replace stamp duty with land taxes
NSW policy giving first home buyers the choice to pay annual rate prompts calls for change in other states

Eden Gillespieand Benita Kolovos

16, Jan, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
Human Rights Act could be critical in divisive Queensland youth bail case
Palaszczuk government’s 2019 laws to be weighed against underlying principles of human rights

Ben Smee

14, Feb, 2023 @2:00 PM

Article image
Treatment of LGBTQ+ students at Queensland colleges prompts review into independent schools accreditation
State education minister Grace Grace says review to look at regulation of non-state schools and measures to protect students

Ben Smee

31, Oct, 2022 @2:08 AM

Article image
Elderly man who sparked renewed debate of youth crime dies in Queensland hospital
Ministers and police commissioner will attend community forum in Toowoomba as high profile youth crimes put Palaszczuk government under pressure

Eden Gillespie

13, Feb, 2023 @6:56 AM

Article image
Queensland to spend $5bn on 1,100km CopperString power line to unlock renewables potential
‘Eureka moment’ project will provide future energy certainty and trigger new minerals processing, Palaszczuk government says

Ben Smee

06, Mar, 2023 @11:41 PM

Article image
Queensland shooting sparking ‘false flag’ conspiracy theories, experts warn
Conspiracists attempting to present an alternative reality of the Wieambilla attack that left two police officers and a neighbour dead

Eden Gillespie

20, Dec, 2022 @7:29 PM