GOLD COAST, Australia—Fossilized dinosaur remains recovered from an opal mine in the Australian Outback have been found to be from four specimens of a new species, the first time a dinosaur herd has been discovered in the nation’s history.
The University of New England’s Armidale campus led a team of researchers to an underground opal mine near Lightning Ridge, 356 kilometers (220 miles) north of Dubbo in northwest New South Wales.
Researchers excavated a total of four skeletons, ranging from small juveniles to larger animals, that might have measured 5 meters (16.4 feet) long. The dig site revealed a new dinosaur species and what researchers describe to be the world’s most complete opalized dinosaur.
“We initially assumed it was a single skeleton but, when I started looking at some of the bones, I realized that we had four scapulae (shoulder blades) all from different sized animals,” UNE lead researcher Phil Bell said in a statement.
In an Australian first a herd of dinosaurs has been discovered in an underground opal mine near Lightning Ridge, NSW. Lead researcher UNE’s Dr Phil Bell talks to us about the find: #dinosaur #discovery #opalshttps://t.co/pxr8mkszlI
— Uni of New England (@UniNewEngland) June 3, 2019
Bell’s team believes the remains might have been part of a small herd or family, and was stunned by the sheer number of bones recovered.
The new dinosaur has been named Fostoria dhimbangunmal after Robert Foster, the opal miner who in 1985 discovered the fossils mostly comprised of gray potch opals at the Sheepyard opal field.
Fostoria was a two-legged, plant-eating iguanodontian dinosaur which, according to UNE, was closely related to the more widely known Muttaburrasaurus species discovered in Central Queensland during 1980.
Australian Museum scientists from Sydney helped excavate the fossilized bones, which were not studied until Foster’s children Gregory and Joanne donated them to the Australian Opal Center (AOC) under the Federal Government’s Cultural Gift Program in 2015.
The center praised the discovery for providing the “most complete opalized dinosaur skeleton in the world.”
“To recover dozens of bones from the one skeleton is a first,” AOC paleontologist and special projects officer Jenni Brammall said. “Partial skeletons of extinct swimming reptiles have been found at other Australian opal fields but, for opalized dinosaurs, we generally have only a single bone or tooth or in rare instances a few bones.”
The species name, dhimbangunmal (pronounced bim-baan goon-mal), means “sheep yard” in the local Yuwaalaraay and Yuwaalayaay languages, in recognition of the Sheepyard opal field where Foster originally found the bones.
The discovery comes just months after remains of a new, small, plant-eating dinosaur were also found at Lightning Ridge.
The Weewarrasaurus pobeni was a sheep dog-sized dinosaur that spent its days on two legs, roaming the prehistoric floodplains that existed in the area about 100 million years ago.
The Weewarrasaurus jawbone fragment was found by chance in a bucket of opal rubble in the Wee Warra opal field, and named in honor of Adelaide-based opal buyer Mike Poben who donated the fossil for research.
“I was sorting some rough opal when, astonishingly, I saw two fan-like ridges protruding from the dirt around one oddly-shaped piece,” Poben said in a statement. “Time froze, if these were teeth, then this was an opalized jawbone fragment.”
“… my jaw dropped. I had to try hard to contain my excitement, it was so beautiful.” UNE palaeontologist Dr Phil Bell when he laid eyes on the opalised jaw bone that he subsequently identified as a new dinosaur species. https://t.co/i5rPHGJDOk #palaeontology #proudtobeUNE pic.twitter.com/VqR55lafI5
— Uni of New England (@UniNewEngland) December 4, 2018
When Bell saw the jawbone, he immediately knew it was a valuable find.
“I remember Mike showing me the specimen and my jaw dropped,” he said. “I had to try hard to contain my excitement, it was so beautiful.”
Brammall confirmed the specimen as a “supremely rare and unlikely discovery.”
“This incredible little object is both the 100 million-year-old jaw of a new dinosaur species and a precious gemstone,” she said.
Lightning Ridge is the only place in the world where dinosaur bones routinely turn to opal, according to UNE. Precious opal gives off a rainbow of colors; in the case of the jawbone, it gives off a shimmering green and blue light.
However, many of the remains are often found in mining spoil, because they sit in rock strata that lies up to 30 meters (98.4 feet) underground.
“The mining process breaks the fossils into fragments but, on the other hand, we would never get to see even those fragments if it wasn’t for mining,” Bell said.