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QM & Qld X-ray CT scanner partnership

Thanks to CT scanning fossils, doctors can better understand what dinosaurs walked through Lake Quarry. (Supplied).

Tobias Jurss-Lewis and Danielle O’Neal, A CT scanner is changing our understanding of dinosaurs and the landscape of prehistoric outback Queensland, ABC News, 16 May 2023

Beneath layers of precious fossils, Queensland palaeontologists have made a discovery that reshapes our understanding of the prehistoric outback.

For months, Scott Hocknull has been loading bones and fossils into a CT scanner. It’s not a medical procedure, and he’s not a medical doctor.

A man and a woman loading a dinosaur fossil into a CT scanner

Dr Scott Hocknull is planning to release his findings to encourage further study. (ABC News: Marton Dobras).

Dr Hocknull is a palaeontologist – like Australia’s version of Jurassic Park’s Alan Grant – and what he is doing is more like a high-tech game of Cluedo.

“These are really rare and they’re very, very precious specimens,” Dr Hocknull said holding a fossilised dinosaur footprint.

“So you don’t go and just cut them up and start looking inside.”

A computer screen sits in front of a window showing a CT scanner

Scott Hocknull has put the fossils through a CT scanner.(ABC News: Marton Dobras).

Under a new partnership between Queensland Museum and Queensland X-ray, Dr Hocknull has been working with radiologists to digitally dissect precious, prehistoric pieces of the outback to solve the mystery of our state’s famous dinosaur trackways Lark Quarry.

“It’s like a CSI scene,” Dr Hocknull said.

“Like a crime scene from 93 million years ago, where the perpetrators are missing; we have no eyewitnesses and we’ve got to look for evidence.

“It’s the way of the future for the study of this sort of fossil.”

A man and a woman look at a computer screen showing dinosaur fossil scans

Scott Hocknull, palaeontologist at Queensland Museum, doing a CT scan of dinosaur fossils.(ABC News: Marton Dobras).

Around 1,500 kilometres north-west of Brisbane – and about 150km from the outback town of Winton – is Lark Quarry.

It’s the scene of hundreds of fossilised footprints that scientists have speculated about for almost half a century.

Understanding Lark Quarry

It’s been commonly accepted the area was “barren” – but theories about its exact nature have varied.

A man and a woman loading a dinosaur fossil into a CT scanner

Dr Scott Hocknull is planning to release his findings to encourage further study.(ABC News: Marton Dobras).

Some have speculated that it was a shallow part of a river where dinosaurs would cross.

The prevailing belief, however, is that it was the site of a dinosaur stampede.

“Imagine that scene [from Jurassic Park] with Alan Grant and the kids and they’re cowering behind the log and the dinosaurs come out and they’re all changing directions, and he goes ‘they do run in herds’, and the big T-rex comes out and takes a small dinosaur and eats it,” Dr Hocknull said.

“That idea is really premised on the fact that we have evidence in footprints at Lark Quarry in particular.”

a man examining a large orange fossil, bigger than his head

Dr Scott Hocknull has been digitally modelling the root system and footprints from the scans.(ABC News: Liz Pickering).

But what we see in the fossilised footprints is only part of the story; and hiding beneath layers of precious ironstone, Dr Hocknull has found new evidence.

“Root systems of plants that were growing on the surface … many different layers of footprints, plants that were growing over the surface and we’re even finding potential traces of insects and burrows,” he said.

Looking through the CT scanner, a man and a woman load in the dinosaur fossil

Scott Hocknull hopes the fossil scans will uncover new information.(ABC News: Marton Dobras).

It suggests that Lark Quarry looked nothing like a wasteland.

“It’s actually an environment … a big open flood plain with plants and a fantastic virginal life of lush growth and plants surrounding to eat,” Dr Hocknull said.

“It’s kind of like what you’d expect today in the Serengeti or the Okavango Delta.

“What we see with these root systems is there was a meadow of these ancient plants called horsetails. We even have the root systems of plants that … had to be growing in the open air.”

He believes that rather than a one-time stampede – Lark Quarry was a regular dinosaur migration route over a long period of time.

“The trackways suggest that there were periods of time where dinosaurs were coming through the environment, attracted by the food and the insects and the big meat-eating dinosaurs were attracted by those small dinosaurs,” he said.

A close-up of a computed tomography sign, with a man and woman in the background looking at the CT scanner

Scott Hocknull has tried to learn more about the fossils by scanning them with a computed tomography (CT) machine.(ABC News: Marton Dobras).

‘No-one is going to jail’

Dr Hocknull has been digitally modelling the root system and footprints from the scans, and rebuilding scenes of a “lush” Lark Quarry, which will be displayed at Queensland Museum.

But he doesn’t want to discredit the other theories; in fact, Dr Hocknull is planning to release his findings to encourage further study.

“That’s the hope; that they look at it with completely different eyes they go out and collect specimens and, over time, we build up this whole picture,” he said.

“Like I said, it’s a CSI scene. It’s not like you’ve got to go to the court of appeal and say my evidence is better than your evidence,” he joked.

“They’re trackways, they’re 93 million years old. No-one is going to jail.”

Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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