A bunch of feminine graziers from outback Queensland who hunt fossils of their downtime have uncovered the stays of a 100m-year-old creature that palaeontologists are likening to the Rosetta Stone for its potential to unlock the invention of a number of new species of prehistoric marine large.
One of many “Rock Chicks” – because the novice palaeontologists name themselves – uncovered the fossilised stays of the long-necked plesiosaur, referred to as an elasmosaur, whereas looking out her western Queensland cattle station in August.
This was the primary time that an elasmosaur cranium has been discovered linked to its physique in Australia.
The data that gives may enable palaeontologists to decipher different fossils held in museums, simply because the Rosetta Stone, with its three scripts, allowed philologists to crack historical Egyptian hieroglyphics.
The trio had already discovered one other plesiosaur amongst different vital fossil finds within the weeks main up-to-the-minute when Cassandra Prince noticed a head wanting up at her from the dry earth.
“I’m like, no, you already know, this isn’t actual,” Prince mentioned. “After which I look down once more and I’m like, holy hell, I feel that’s a cranium wanting up at me.”
Such a fossil, which has been stored beneath wraps till now, is globally uncommon, in response to Dr Espen Knutsen, the senior curator of palaeontology on the Queensland Museum.
Prince was in common contact with Knutsen on the time of her discovery, sending him photos of her and sister Cynthia and cousin Sally’s different finds. Immediately, although, the palaeontologist knew this one was particular.
The museum already holds the cranium of an elasmosaur its assortment, together with a number of our bodies. However a cranium linked to a physique has proved elusive.
That is largely to do with the distinctive anatomy of elasmosaur. The marine reptiles most likely grew to round eight metres in size and had tiny heads atop very, very lengthy necks.
“A whole lot of it’s neck,” Knutsen mentioned. “At the very least half, if not two-thirds of all the physique size [of an elasmosaur] is usually neck.”
When an elasmosaur died, its decomposing physique would swell with fuel that made it rise to the floor, the place it could float on the mercy of tides and scavengers. A metres-long hole between physique and head meant these physique elements would not often sink to the identical spot as soon as the fuel dissipated.
This specific elasmosaur had its cranium, neck and entrance half of the physique all preserved collectively – however the again half of its physique is lacking.
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.