Plesiosaurus: Fossil hunters in Australia discover 100 million year old skeleton

Plesiosaurus: Fossil hunters in Australia discover 100 million year old skeleton


The discovery of a giant 100-million-year-old marine reptile skeleton in Australia has been hailed by researchers as a breakthrough that could provide vital clues about prehistoric life.

The remains of the 20-foot-tall juvenile long-necked plesiosaur, also known as an elasmosaurus, were found in August by a trio of amateur fossil hunters at a cattle station in Queensland’s western outback.

Espen Knutsen, senior curator of paleontology at the Queensland Museum, compared the discovery to that of the Rosetta Stone – the ancient Egyptian block of granite rediscovered in 1799 that helped experts decipher hieroglyphics.

“We’ve never found a body and a head together and this could be key to future research in this area,” Knutsen said in a statement Wednesday confirming the discovery, adding that it could give paleontologists more insight into the origin, evolution and ecology of the Cretaceous in the region.

“Because these plesiosaurs had two-thirds of the neck, the head often separated from the body after death, which makes it very difficult to find a fossil that preserves both together,” he said.

The discovery was made by amateur paleontologists known as the “Rock Chicks” — Cassandra Prince, her sister Cynthia, and fellow fossil finder Sally, who goes by her first name only.

The skull of the 100 million year old plesiosaur found in Queensland, Australia.

Elasmosaurs, which grew to be between 8 and 10 meters long, lived in the Eromanga Sea, which covered large parts of Australia’s interior with water 50 meters deep about 150 million years ago.

Knutsen told CNN that when an elasmosaurus died, its decomposing body would swell with gas that caused it to rise to the water’s surface, and that the head often broke off when predators scavenged the carcass — making full-body discoveries rare.

He added that because the latest find was a young specimen, it would shed light on how elasmosaurs’ body shape changed from juvenile to adulthood.

“We’re going to look at the chemistry of its teeth and that can also tell us something about its ecology in terms of habitat, whether it was migrating throughout its life, or whether it more or less stayed in the same habitat, and also in its diet,” he said.

Ancient marine reptiles such as plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs are not classified as dinosaurs even though they lived around the same time. Plesiosaurs evolved from ancestors that lived on land and therefore lacked gills and had to surface occasionally for air. It remains unknown how long they can stay underwater.

Amateur fossil hunter Cassandra Prince with Aspen Knutsen of the Queensland Museum.

It is the last major discovery about prehistory to be made in Australia in recent years.

In June last year scientists confirmed that the 2007 discovery of a fossil skeleton in Queensland was the country’s largest dinosaur. The dinosaur, nicknamed “Cooper,” was about two stories tall and was as long as a basketball court.

Two months later, scientists discovered that there once was a species flying dragon” that hovered over Australia 105 million years ago. The pterosaur was described by researchers as a “terrifying beast” that feasted on young dinosaurs.

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