Amazing Australian plesiosaur preservation
Location of Richmond, Queensland, where plesiosaur fossils were found.
Photo supplied by Cathy Mobbs
Paleontologists Mary Wade and Cathy Mobbs excavating the Richmond plesiosaur.
This part of Queensland is among the richest fossil-bearing areas in the world and a number extremely well-preserved marine reptiles have been discovered.
Plesiosaur remains have been found on all continents including Antarctica, with dozens coming from the Oxford Clay of England.
Cattleman Ian Ievers, in 1989, went looking for fossils on Marathon Station, the family cattle property near Richmond in northwest Queensland, Australia.1,2 His search was rewarded when he found some bones sticking out of a gully. There was a skull with a slender snout, like a crocodile’s, and some vertebrae. The rest of the skeleton disappeared into the bank.
When the paleontologists at Queensland Museum in Brisbane heard of the discovery, they wasted no time organizing a recovery team. It could have been disastrous if the gully eroded in the coming wet season. Even cattle sliding down the slope could have damaged the find.
Usually, fossil remains are recovered only after a great effort, but this creature was buried in fairly loose sediment, mostly shell-grit. After just 30 minutes of digging, the team could see that the skeleton was of a plesiosaur. It turned out to be of a kind not previously known in Australia. It took a further four days for the team, with help from Ian, his brother Rob and other members of the family, to excavate the creature completely.
Plesiosaurs were air-breathing marine reptiles with a distinct neck, a prominent head and a round body. They are believed to be extinct. The creatures thrust themselves through the water with their four flippers and steered with their tail. The specimen buried on Marathon Station was 4.3 metres (14 ft) from the end of its nose to the tip of its tail.
When the team removed the overlying sediment, they found the animal flat on its back with its flippers splayed out. Remarkably, the bones were not a jumbled heap or scattered around. Rather, every bone was individually fossilized, lying untouched in the exact place where the animal was deposited. Only a few bones from one paddle were missing.
Rob Ievers said, ‘It looked just like the skeleton of an animal that had died yesterday or the year before.’ Excavation from the loose sediment was relatively easy. The team dug out the flippers, tail, neck and body as separate blocks, held together with plaster and bandages.3 They carefully labelled the skeleton so it could be reassembled at the museum.
But how could the plesiosaur have been preserved so perfectly? The whole animal, large as it was, must have been covered in sediment quickly, before it had time to decompose and fall apart. Otherwise, the bones would have been scattered over the ocean bottom. Indeed, the sediment must have buried the animal so quickly that few other marine animals had a chance to scavenge the body. That could mean it was buried within hours.
Properties in the area are famous for fossils. It was not surprising that Ian, the family fossil enthusiast, soon reported another find just 8 km away. This time it was a land animal—an ankylosaur called Minmi about 3 m (10 ft) long. These had a rough armour-plated skin with layers of tiny bones (ossicles). The specimen was well preserved and even the wrinkles in the skin could be ‘mapped’ from the ossicles.
Indeed, the whole of inland Queensland is scattered with animal remains that are in extraordinarily good condition. The area has produced so many skeletons that tourist promoters call it the ‘fossil triangle’.
In 1930, paleontologists retrieved a well-preserved plesiosaur from another cattle station near Richmond. It was a kronosaur and the largest marine reptile found anywhere in the world at the time. Its skull alone was over 3 m (10 ft) long and its total length was 13 m (43 ft).
In Hughenden, another town in the area, tourists can view the skeleton of a huge dinosaur in a big iron shed. The town has also erected a life-size replica of the animal in the main street, where passing traffic can’t help but see it.
All these animals, so incredibly preserved, testify to catastrophic conditions that buried them suddenly. Land animals and marine animals have been overwhelmed and quickly covered in sediment. Whatever it was that caused this, it was huge, and it affected both the oceans and the land.
If there really was a global Flood, just as the Bible says, then what would we expect to find? We would expect to find billions of dead things buried in rock layers laid down by water all over the earth. The fossilized land and sea animals all over Queensland are exactly what we would expect from the global Flood described in the Bible.4 Their bones are an outstanding testimony to the reality of that event.
Nowadays, highways bring travellers into the remote areas of Australia, to the museums that display these fossils. If only these visitors knew the reason, they may well ponder the evidence before their eyes that the Creator did judge this world by water, as the Bible says.
References and notes
- Mobbs, C., The creature from our inland sea, Australian Geographic 20:26–27, October–December, 1990. Return to text.
- Neales, S., The man who saved Richmond, Outback 16:56–58, April–May, 2001. Return to text.
- The paleontologists decided not to dig below a layer of platy limestone in the field but to remove the fossils in chunks—one large block for the body and smaller ones for the tail, lower neck, a sidepiece of the rib cage and each flipper. Some years later museum staff assessed the skeleton at about 90% complete. Paleontologists attributed damage to predation, partial erosion and final burial. Return to text.
- The sediments in which these animals were buried were deposited as the floodwaters were rising, just before they reached their peak. See Walker, T., The Great Artesian Basin, Australia, TJ 10(3):379–390, 1996. Return to text.