Sauropods, a family of dinosaurs featuring household names like the brachiosaurus and brontosaurus, have welcomed a new green-eating lumberer into their ranks. Scientists have uncovered the remains of a new long-necked dinosaur species in outback Australia, a discovery that also enlightens the debate about how these creatures migrated across the globe many millions of years ago.
The fossils were stumbled upon by an Australian sheep farmer named David Elliot, who spied the fragments on the ground near his farm in outback Queensland. But Elliot wasn't any old sheep farmer – he also happened to be co-founder of The Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum, so he was a guy that knew possible remnants of ancient Earth-walkers when he saw them.
It took around 10 years of digging to properly excavate the site, but the team eventually managed to clean the rock from 17 pallets worth of bones and piece together one of the most complete sauropod skeletons ever discovered in Australia, which would become known as Savannasaurus elliottorum.
S. elliottorum had very wide hips, well-spaced stocky limbs and five toes on each foot. It is believed to have wandered the savannahs of Queensland during the early part of the late Cretaceous period, around 98 to 95 million years ago, which helps to inform the ongoing debate about how sauropods spread around the world.
Scientists have yet to find evidence of sauropods existing at high latitudes during the Cretaceous period, latitudes higher than 66 degrees in either hemisphere, to be specific. This suggests that they preferred the warmer climates closer to the equator, like those in Queensland, for example. But these creatures are thought to have originated in South America, and the only land route would have had them pass through Antarctica and the frosty regions of Australia's south, to reach Queensland, so how on Earth did they get there?
The scientists say the most likely explanation is that a major climate change event during the Albian period, between 113 and 100 million years ago, warmed up the region. This made the route passable so the dinosaurs could comfortably wander on through, to be discovered by a local sheep farmer some 95 million years later.
The team has published a paper outlining the discovery in the journal Scientific Reports.
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