The remains belonged to the first herd or family group of dinosaurs discovered in Australia and are the most complete dinosaur fossil yet – found beautifully preserved in opal.

By Ian Horswill

Posted on June 5, 2019

Fossils found in Australia belong to a new species of dinosaur, scientists reported in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

The remains belonged to the first herd or family group of dinosaurs discovered in Australia and are the most complete dinosaur fossil yet found preserved in opal.

“This is unheard of in Australia,” said Phil Bell, the study’s lead author and palaeontologist at the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales (NSW).

“We initially assumed it was a single skeleton, but when I started looking at some of the bones, I realised that we had four scapulae (shoulder blades) all from different sized animals.

“There are about 60 opalised bones from one adult dinosaur, including part of the braincase, and bones from at least another three animals.”

The  part of a vertebra from the back of a Fostoria dinosaur. Photo: Australian Opal Centre

The glittering remains, encrusted with opal, were found near Lightning Ridge, a small outback town in north-western NSW renowned for the mining of black opals and other opal gemstones.

The bones represent the newly described species Fostoria dhimbangunmal. Fostoria dhimbangunmal was an Iguanodon-like dinosaur that lived about a hundred million years ago during the mid-Cretaceous period when the region was a broad floodplain with lakes and rivers flowing into the inland Eromanga Sea.

“The floodplains were frequently wet and richly vegetated, meaning they were a good place for plant-eating dinosaurs,” said Bell.

The species had a horse-shaped skull and a similar build to the kangaroo. The UK’s Iguanodon and Australia’s Muttaburrasaurus are among Fostoria’s more famous cousins.

The name of the new dinosaur is recognition of its original discoverer, with ‘dhimbangunmal’ meaning ‘sheep yard’ in the Yuwaalaraay, Yuwaalayaay and Gamilaraay languages of the Indigenous people living in the area near Lightning Ridge.

It was more than 35 years ago when opal miner Bob Foster found the bones in his mine as he looked for a glimmer of rainbow-shaded gems embedded in the rocks 12 metres underground.

“We would see these things that looked like horses,” said Foster. “Then we would just smash them up to see if there were any opals inside.”

Fostoria toe bone Australian Opal Centre

But Foster realised there was something amiss about the increasing number of bones he was putting in his living room. He put them into two suitcases and took a 724km train ride to the Australian Museum in Sydney. Museum curator Alex Ritchie examined Foster’s bone collection, recognised them for what they were and immediately organised an expedition to the opal miner’s site.

In 1984, they hauled out the most complete dinosaur skeleton ever found in New South Wales. The bones, which were encrusted with sparkling opal, were taken back to the Australian Museum for public display. Two decades later, Foster took the fossils back and donated them to the Australian Opal Centre in Lightning Ridge.

It was only then that they were sent to be formally studied by scientists and it is the results of their research that is published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

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