Dinosaurs of Queensland

This page provides information relevant to the Dinoskeptics documentary currently under production.

Contents of this page

1) Welcome to Winton, Queensland, Australia
2) Dinosaurs discovered in and around Winton
3) Dr Stephen Poropat, Dr Scott Hocknull, and the ‘Key Three’ Dinosaurs
4) The ‘Australian Age of Dinosaurs’ Museum and AAOD Ltd
5) David Elliott: Discovers dinosaurs on his property, opens museum, discovers more dinosaurs
6) David Elliott: Australia’s luckiest man?

1) Welcome to Winton, Queensland, Australia

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The red bubble signifies the location of Winton, QLD, some 1,300 km north-west of Brisbane.

Queensland is Australia’s second-largest and, according to official statistics, third-most-populous state, with a land area greater than that of Alaska, and slightly less than five million inhabitants. Given the vast area of the state, it may come as no surprise that more dinosaurs have purportedly been discovered in Queensland than any other Australian state. According to Museums Victoria:

The vast majority of Australia’s dinosaur bones come from north-central Queensland, found in Early Cretaceous rocks formed about 140 million years ago (mya). But even though this is the richest Australian dinosaur region, finds are still rare, and fewer than 10 skeletons are known, some of them rather incomplete.

Among the key places of ‘north-central Queensland’ is Winton, a small, rural town home to about 1,000 people. The town’s nearest major city is Brisbane, Queensland’s capital, which is more than 1,300 km (800 miles) away. The area is now advertised as a hot tourist destination, in no small part due to the dinosaur-related commerce for which it is now known. So lucrative has the dinosaur industry been for the region that some have described it as the ‘saviour of Winton’.

Several different species of dinosaur have been discovered in and around Winton over the past few decades, most of which have only been officially classified and named in recent years. In fact, one particular Winton resident, Mr David Elliott, has been responsible (directly or indirectly) for most of the finds. A cattle farmer, with no formal training in science (paleontology or otherwise), Mr Elliott parlayed his amazing discoveries into the creation of a brand new dinosaur museum, which he founded with the help of his wife, Judy. Mr Elliott remains chairman of the museum’s parent organisation, the ‘Australian Age of Dinosaurs’ (AAOD) to this day.

2) Dinosaurs discovered in and around Winton

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Official scientific depiction (with recovered bones highlighted) of Diamantinasaurus [A & B], Wintonotitan [C], and Australovenator [D]. Source paper: Link
Australovenator: Discovered/’described’ in 2009 by Scott Hucknell. See item ‘D’ on the image to the right.

Diamantinasaurus: Discovered/’described’ in 2009 by Scott Hucknell. See items ‘A’ and ‘B’ on the image to the right.

Savannasaurus: Discovered in 2005 by David Elliot, named in 2016 by Steven Poropat. See the image to the lower left.

Wintonotitan: Discovered in 1974, later reclassified in 2009 by Scott Hucknell. See item ‘C’ on the image to the right.

The image to the right shows the bones which experts claim to have found for the three different species ‘described’ by Scott Hucknell. For the entire scientific paper from which this image was taken, see this link. The image to the lower left of this section shows the bones which experts claim to have found for Savannasaurus, described by Steven Poropat. For the official government-funded media story from which the image was taken, see this link. You can click on either image for a larger version.

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Official scientific depiction (with recovered bones highlighted) of Savannasaurus. Source article: Link

 

 

Note the scarcity of neck and/or tail bones claimed to have been found for all of the four species in question. Despite the fact that these are entirely new species (which implies that they are the first to be found of their kind, and there are no other specimens from which to ‘fill in the blanks’), the experts are confident that they know the size and shape of each creature. You may be surprised to learn that this is perfectly acceptable in the field of paleontology:

The world has a new dinosaur [Savannasaurus]: a barrel-bellied giant herbivore that stood as tall as a giraffe and grazed the grasslands of what is now central-west Queensland… Almost a quarter of the skeleton has been retrieved – making this the third-most complete Australian dinosaur skeleton.

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An artist’s impression of the new dinosaur, Savannasaurus elliottorum. Photo: Travis Tischler. Source article: Link

You read that correctly: even though less than one quarter of the skeleton has been ‘retrieved’, this constitutes the ‘third-most complete Australian dinosaur skeleton’ discovered to date. It turns out that the experts are happy to use less than a quarter of a dinosaur’s bones to draw conclusions about the size, shape, and even eating habits of the creature, with ‘draw’ being the operative word. To the right is what people are shown when they visit the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum in Winton, and also when they read about the ‘newly discovered dinosaur’ in this article published by the government-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

3) Dr Stephen Poropat, Dr Scott Hucknull, and the ‘Key Three’ Dinosaurs

Dr Stephen Poropat: Research Associate at the AAOD Museum (Link)

Three of the aforementioned dinosaurs were discovered and/or ‘described’ by Dr Steven Poropat and/or Dr Steven Hucknell: Australovenator, Diamantinasaurus, Wintonotitan. Their paper, ‘New Australian sauropods shed light on Cretaceous dinosaur palaeobiogeography‘, published October 20, 2016, is available for free here. The discoveries were only made ‘official’ once their claims had gone through the ‘peer review’ process (which was finalised in 2016), but were first reported back in 2009. Here is the original PLoS One paper. According to a 2009 article published by the ABC:

Palaeontologists have unveiled three new Australian dinosaur skeletons in Queensland today.

The two herbivores and one carnivore, excavated from the Winton formation, roamed our land during the Cretaceous period – 98 million years ago.

The research, published in the current edition of PloS One, puts Australia back on the palaeontology map…

Palaeontologist and lead author Dr Scott Hocknull, of the Queensland Museum, says in the past dinosaur discoveries in Australia haven’t been considered important because there were so few of them.

“We’ve been able to prove that [view] completely wrong.”

It made for quite a story: the scientists had decided to unofficially name the three dinosaurs ‘Banjo’, ‘Clancy’ and ‘Matilda’ in honour of the famous Australian poet, Banjo Patterson, who is believed to have written some of his material while traveling through Winton. The story gets even better. According to the Queensland Museum:

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David Elliott with then-premier of Queensland, Anna Bligh. Photo source: link

In a quirky twist of fate, Banjo (Australovenator) and Matilda (Diamantinasaurus) were both found buried together in what turns out to be a 98 million-year old billabong. Banjo Patterson’s story of Waltzing Matilda describes the unfortunate end to a swagman who steals a jumbuck (sheep) but is chased by police and ends up leaping into and drowning in a billabong alongside his stolen sheep.

The discovery of the dinosaurs was announced to the public by the then-premier of Queensland, Anna Bligh, who was on location for the historic occasion. According to the BBC:

The findings have been published in the public access journal Public Library of Science One (PLoS One), and were announced by Queensland Premier Anna Bligh at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum of Natural History in Winton.

Dr Hucknull and Dr Poropat both take part in the practical operations of the organisation, specifically via the ‘digs’ which dinosaur fans pay money to take part in. See this feature piece in the Courier-Mail (Queensland’s only daily newspaper). One section of the story reveals that Hucknull’s professional scientific career is largely tied to the Winton discoveries:

It was 2001 and Hocknull had only recently finished his PhD in palaeontology and was about to embark on an expedition to Cape York with the Queensland Museum. The museum had heard of David’s motorbike mustering discovery of bones through highly respected palaeontologist, the late Dr Mary Wade, who had excavated Lake Quarry and retired to the outback. The expedition detoured via Winton to take a look.

“We walk in and on a ping-pong table there are dinosaur bones, there’s bones and fragments all over trestle tables, on the dining room table, in the lounge, on some old beds. There were hundreds and hundreds of bone fragments,” says Hocknull, his voice rising with excitement even now. One piece was immediately recognisable as the femur of a big dinosaur and Hocknull saw his nascent career taking shape.

4) The ‘Australian Age of Dinosaurs’ Museum and AAOD Ltd

The relationship between the ‘Australian Age of Dinosaurs’ Ltd (AAOD) and the ‘Museum’ is straight-forward:

The Museum is owned by Australian Age of Dinosaurs Limited, an Australian public company limited by guarantee, and is a not-for-profit organisation.

4.1 – History

A good overview of the organisation’s history is provided by the relevant page of their website:

In 1999 while mustering sheep on his property Belmont near Winton, David Elliott discovered the fossilised bone of what was, at the time, Australia’s largest dinosaur. This bone was later identified as part of a giant femur from a Cretaceous sauropod that roamed the Winton area 95 million years ago.

Following the discovery of more fossils during digs held in conjunction with the Queensland Museum, David and his wife, Judy Elliott, called a public meeting in Winton on 17 August 2002 with a view to establishing a dinosaur museum at Winton.

On 25 October 2002 Australian Age of Dinosaurs Incorporated (AAOD Inc) commenced operations as a not-for-profit organisation aimed at ensuring future dinosaur digs and the preparation and conservation of dinosaur fossils from the Winton Formation could continue…

While mustering sheep in March 2005 David Elliott discovered a new dinosaur site on Belmont and a subsequent dig in September that year uncovered the remains of one of Australia’s most complete sauropod skeletons.

So in 1999 Mr Elliott happened upon some dinosaur fossils just laying on the ground; in 2002 he and his wife created a new corporate entity to oversee the creation of a dinosaur museum; then in 2005 Mr Elliott discovered yet another dinosaur on his property. AAOD Ltd is the ‘not for profit’ corporate entity which is responsible for the museum; the former was legally incorporated in 2002, while the latter was officially opened in 2009.

4.2 – Governance

Mr Elliott remains the chairman of the AAOD organisation. According to the governance page of their website, fellow directors include:

Dr Scott Hucknull, a paleontologist officially credited with verifying several Winton dinosaurs
Graham Lenton, the current Mayor of Winton Shire
Bruce Collins, a former Mayor of Winton Shire who served on the council for 25 years
Edward Warren, another former Mayor of Winton Shire
Robert Elliott, who we can infer from this ABC article is actually David’s son (see image below)

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[ABC caption] Mr Elliott’s son, Bob Elliott, concreting the floor of a shed on his family’s property. The shed will be used as a preparation area for pieces to be included in the expanded museum. (ABC: Blythe Moore) Link

So the organisation is run by several current or former Mayors of the local shire; a paleontologist whose claim to fame is officially verifying the dinosaurs found at Winton; the man who found those dinosaurs, and his son.

4.3 – Government Funding

The organisation is incorporated and advertised as a ‘not for profit’ entity. The FAQ and Supporters pages of their website give an overview of the magnitude of direct funding, and ‘in kind’ donations, provided to the AAOD by various levels of government. These provisions amount to several million dollars. From the figures listed on those pages alone, the following totals can be deduced as the minimum amounts given to the AAOD by each of the three levels of government (i.e. federal, state, and local):

Australian government: $1.6m
Queensland (state) government: $880k
Winton Shire: $850k

These are merely the direct financial contributions, and do not include ‘in kind’ provisions. For instance, the QLD state government also supplied prisoners (yes, prisoners) to build fences, walking tracks, and observational decks for the museum. The value of this labour is not included in the above figures, nor is the value of other ‘in kind’ provisions such as sealing the dirt road to the museum from the highway, which was funded by the QLD state government to the tune of $7m.

4.4 Other Revenues

The organisation facilitates ‘digs’ in which amateurs with no formal training in science (let alone paleontology) are welcome to partake – for a sizeable fee. From the Courier-Mail:

Denise O’Boyle from Brisbane’s Ashgrove who is on her 11th dig while others are newbies. Deano Sainty has flown in from Rotorua, New Zealand, for his first week in the pits. Sainty’s week of digging and being fed in hearty country style while learning the quirks of the donkey will cost him $3500 and return “duggers” like O’Boyle pay $2500. “Oh mate, I’m just rapt,” says Sainty about securing a spot. “We’re digging for dinosaurs, mate! Digging for dinosaurs!”

4.5 – Other donations

From Brisbane Times:

Winton resident, Peter Britton, who donated land for the museum’s future site, said it would bring huge economic benefits to the region.

“[There are] benefits to the local economy and there will be lots of tourists, visitors [who will] need somewhere to stay, to eat.”

From Fairfax:

…dinosaur tourism has assumed T-Rex-sized proportions in this part of western Queensland. In Winton, dinosaurs have usurped even Waltzing Matilda as the town’s greatest tourist attraction. “People used to come to go to the Waltzing Matilda Centre,” says mayor Butch Lenton. “Now they go to the centre because they’re here, but they’re here for the dinosaurs.”

4.6 – Operation

From PerthNow:

This is where you come if you want to get close to [dinosaurs], work on them or even help unearth them. There is nowhere else in Australia like it, and the good news is that you don’t have to be a palaeontologist to do it. Most of the volunteers at AAOD have no scientific training – they’re taught on the job – and they include children as young as 12. If that doesn’t get them hooked on science, nothing will.

5) David Elliott: Discovers dinosaurs on his property, opens a museum, discovers more dinosaurs

Mr Elliott first discovered a dinosaur on his property in 1999. The bones were just laying there on the surface of the earth, millions of years after the dinosaur they belonged to had perished. From the Queensland Museum:

Elliot’s remains were found by grazier David Elliott in 1999 while he was mustering sheep. The Queensland Museum Geosciences team first visited the site in June 2001. David had collected part of the right femur, portions of several tail vertebrae, ribs and hundreds of smaller fragments. These pieces were found on the surface, in patches spread out over an area 250m x 50m.

Mr Elliott’s big breakthrough came in 2005, when he discovered yet another dinosaur, once again while riding a motorbike on his cattle farm. From the the New York Times:

David Elliott was herding sheep on his motorbike in Queensland, Australia, in 2005 when he came across a pile of fossilized dinosaur bones. He, his wife Judy and their children began piecing together tailbones, toe bones and bits of limbs.

The moment he saw something unusual laying upon the ground on his property that fateful day, Mr Elliott knew he had made another prehistoric discovery. According to LiveScience:

One day in 2005, Elliott, who had previously founded the Australian Age of Dinosaurs museum with his wife, Judy, was tending to his sheep when he noticed a few fossils on the ground on his property in Queensland. At first, Elliott thought two of the bones belonged to a theropod dinosaur. But Judy found otherwise when she clicked the two end pieces together, revealing that the fossils were actually the toe bone of a sauropod, [Dr Steven] Poropat said.

6) David Elliott: The luckiest man in Australia?

As chance would have it, Mr. Elliott also seems to have a knack for finding meteorites, based on the ‘hearsay’ of farmers who saw lights in the night sky:

On March 31, 2004, Winton residents were literally left shaking in their boots as a meteorite ignited on entering the earth’s atmosphere, leaving behind a black trail in the evening sky above the Outback town…

Using neighbour hearsay to pinpoint the location of this yet-to-be-identified falling object, Winton grazier David Elliott set about on a two-year journey to uncover the mysterious item.

Late last month, Mr Elliott finally stumbled across two pieces of ‘space rock’ which lit up the sky in 2004.

“It all started out with a bunch of hearsay from the locals, each adding their understanding of which way the meteorite was headed,” Mr Elliott said.

What are the odds? In what some might describe as an unbelievable coincidence, Mr Elliott had visited Brisbane’s meteorite display shortly before the meteorite event:

Coincidently, Mr Elliott had been on a trip to the Queensland Museum in Brisbane prior to the 2004 event to check out its latest meteorite display.

“These meteorites are not the first I have found – the funny thing is that two months after I visited the Queensland Museum I found a meteorite.

This would be the same Queensland Museum which was slated to make serious cash from selling one of meteorites discovered by Mr Elliott. From the Sydney Morning Herald:

The second, smaller piece found nearby a week later will be sold through the Queensland Museum to raise funds for the preparation of dinosaur bones and the AAD museum.

[Mr Elliott] hopes to earn more than $100,000 from the meteorite which goes on sale in two months.

Not that there could possibly be any shenanigans afoot. After all, the meteorite was to be tested to ensure its authenticity prior to sale. Now who might be responsible for that testing? Again from SMH:

The Queensland Museum will test the smaller samples before they are sold.

With this in mind, let’s revisit Mr Elliott’s method for determining the whereabouts of the meteorite:

He marked where locals said they saw meteorites on a map with “kebab sticks and wires” in a bid to pinpoint where it landed, however, that still left him a 20,200 hectare area to search.

In the end, a dream gave him his best indication of the largest meteorite’s location.

Mr Elliott knew where to look, because of a dream he had one night. That is his own story. Of course, when speaking to the ABC, Mr Elliott explained that luck was on his side.

REPORTER: So you were searching for 50,000 acres?
DAVID ELLIOT: Yes, basically, yeah. Like, I couldn’t … you can’t look at the sky and get a really exact measurement of where something is, you know, like there’s nothing to reference on.
REPORTER: So was it luck as well, finding it?
DAVID ELLIOT: About 99 per cent.

It would seem that the locals know they have good fortune on their side. From the same ABC story:

REPORTER: With so many things happening in Winton, is this luck part of the town itself? Bruce Collins, the Mayor of the Winton Shire, certainly agrees that everything seems to be happening in Winton.
BRUCE COLLINS: Ah, it sounds like it, doesn’t it, yes. I think people in Winton know that if they do nothing, nothing will happen, you know, they sort of have to make it happen.

You heard it from the then-mayor of Winton Shire himself: the people of Winton know they need to make things happen.

Imagine one man’s great luck in finding a newsworthy and valuable set of meteorites, based on nothing more than his dreams and the anecdotal accounts of rural farmers, and hunting the rock down in an area of 50,000 acres. Imagine that this could happen to the very same man who found not one, but two new species of dinosaur, in fossils laying on the surface of the earth, fully exposed to the elements, tens of millions of years after the creatures became extinct, while out sheep-herding on his motorbike, on the very same property where he found the meteorites! What tremendous fortune!