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QMN’s MTQ fossil elasmosaur CT scan research

Rachael Merritt, Researchers use CT scans to study rare Australian fossil discovered in outback Queensland, ABC North Qld, 16 February 2024

Palaeontologists are using CT scans to peer inside the jaws of a rare fossil to unlock the mystery surrounding a giant marine creature that lived 100 million years ago.

Australia’s first complete plesiosaur fossil was discovered in 2022 in outback Queensland.(Supplied: Queensland Museum).

Australia’s first complete head and body of an elasmosaur was discovered on a north-west Queensland property and excavated in October 2022.

The long-necked reptile with flippers is a type of plesiosaur that existed alongside the dinosaurs.

Click here to see Before: A scan of the fossil’s exterior (left).. . After: And a look inside the skull (right)…

A scan of the fossil’s exterior (left). / And a look inside the skull (right).

Since then, palaeontologists at the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville have been painstakingly extracting the six-metre fossil from rock.

Beneath the surface

Nicknamed “Little Prince”, the young plesiosaur’s skull was taken to Queensland X-Ray, where CT scans allowed researchers to see what laid beneath the layers of bone and rock.

“We can see inside the jaws and see if there are several generations of replacement teeth that might tell us something about how often these things changed teeth,” said palaeontology senior curator Espen Knutsen.

Man holds fossil skull in field
Espen Knutsen says the scans will help researchers learn more about the species’ evolution.(Supplied: Queensland Museum).

Dr Knutsen said the medical imaging technology, typically reserved for patients with serious internal injuries or disease, could help fill gaps in the evolution of the species.

“We also want to look at the chemistry of the teeth and that can tell us something about whether they might have been migrating in and out of this ancient inland sea,” he said.

“Then we can look at all those details about how did the young look in this species or how did the old one look?”

Adult plesiosaur discovery

Little Prince was named after grazier Cassandra Prince, who dug up the fossil on the family’s cattle property in the outback town of McKinlay.

Alongside sister Cynthia Nicholls and cousin Sally, the trio of amateur fossil hunters known as the Rock Chicks devote six months of the year during the dry season to scouring the 12-hectare property for signs of ancient life.

Two woman stand and smile at the camera.
Cassandra Prince and Cynthia Nicholls have been searching for fossils since childhood.(ABC News: Rachael Merritt).

Little Prince was not the only significant specimen they found, with the remains of an adult plesiosaur extracted from the same site in September.

The body was so large, it took three days for the palaeontology team to lift it piece by piece from the ground, with the heaviest specimen weighing nearly 900 kilograms.

Paleontologists work to remove dirt from large fossil.
The adult plesiosaur was covered in plaster and taken to the museum for analysis.(Supplied: Queensland Museum).

“When we put the big piece on the back of the Toyota, it dropped a foot. It is huge. It is heavy,” Ms Price said.

“It’s a lot of hard work but it’s exciting.”

Ms Nicholls said making important discoveries was an emotional experience.

Fossil covered in plaster is moved by small truck
The largest pieces of the adult fossil weighed up to 900 kilograms.(Supplied: Queensland Museum).

“I had a fish [fossil], which I’d found … and when we saw a few scales I just cried,” she said.

“This thing’s been down there for millions and millions of years and we’re the first to see it.”