Dinosaurs roar again on outback tourist trail

AUSTRALIA'S very own Jurassic Park is unfolding in outback Queensland, with field museums and plans for a Dinosaur Tourist Trail.

Central Queensland is a mecca of Australian dinosaur fossils. Home to an inland sea 100 million years ago, the vast floodplains left behind as the waters receded came to accumulate dinosaur bones.

Fragments were found there as early as the 1920s, but it is only this decade that momentous discoveries of uniquely Australian species of dinosaur have been made. These concentrated bone beds are now considered equal to any major dinosaur quarry in the world.

"It's a revolution in natural history in Australia," said the Queensland Museum paleontologist Scott Hocknull. "The last decade has seen an unprecedented number of new dinosaur discoveries in Australia. Children no longer need to learn about North American dinosaurs to fuel their appetite for the beasts. Now they only need to look in their own backyard."

To make the dinosaur finds accessible to the public, a Paleo Tourism Trail is being developed, linking excavation sites and museums at Lightning Ridge, Eromanga, Winton, Hughenden and Richmond. Visitors will be able to see the digs in action, help prepare fossils for preservation and view full-size replicas of Australia's own dinosaurs.

The trail, which hinges on proper road access being established to certain sites, will be funded in part by a $600,000 grant from the Australian Research Council. It is expected to be completed within three years, and could boost local tourism by as much as 30 per cent.

The tiny western Queensland town of Eromanga is the newest stop on the fledgling trail. Five years ago a local sheep grazier's son found a bone which further digging revealed to be a piece of the largest dinosaur to have walked the Australian continent.

Five metres tall and up to 30 metres long, the plant-eating Cooper is a member of the Titanosaurus family. He is among the top 10 largest dinosaurs in the world, rivalling a T-rex or gigasaurus. "It's a monstrous beast," Mr Hocknull said.

It also indicates there is an even bigger Australian dinosaur to be found, a carnivorous beast which could eat Cooper. "The bones have to be somewhere out there in the floodplain. We just have to track them down," Mr Hocknull said.

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Earlier this year three new species of dinosaurs, nicknamed Banjo, Matilda and Clancy, were discovered in a prehistoric billabong in Winton. There is already an Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum at Winton.

The Queensland Government has allocated $100,000 to develop the state's newest dinosaur attraction at Plevna Downs near Eromanga. Stretching 100,000 hectares, Plevna Downs encompasses 13 dig sites including the finds of dinosaurs Cooper, Zac and George, but is currently closed to the public.

Rather than ship the dinosaur bones off to a museum in the city, a field museum will be established at Plevna Downs to prepare, preserve and store the fossils where they were discovered. It is expected to cost up to $2 million and be completed in two years.

"The overriding response we get from visitors is they want to go to the area of discovery to see the material," said Stuart Mackenzie, chairman of the Outback Gondwana Foundation, the custodian of the Eromanga fossils.

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