Sparkling Opal Preserved This New Dinosaur Species for 100 Million Years

Sparkling Opal Preserved This New Dinosaur Species for 100 Million Years


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Ancient cultures have long considered opal a special gemstone because of its ability to capture so many different colors. Turns out, that’s not all it can capture: researchers in Australia have identified at least four members of a new dinosaur species whose bones were preserved for 100 million years in opal, the country’s national gemstone.

Australia is a major source of the world’s opal, particularly the black opal found in the town of Lightning Ridge, New South Wales. That’s where miner Bob Foster was working in 1984 when he stumbled on a small, semicircle-shaped bone. Only this wasn’t like the ordinary fish bones Foster had found before in Sheepyard opal field, where he worked. It was vertebrae of a previously unknown dinosaur.

Before long, Foster had found a lot more sparkly, gem-like fossils that were clearly from something unique. And because paleontologists at the Australian Museum in Sydney had asked the public to turn over any dinosaur bones they found, Foster packed the fossils into two suitcases and traveled to the state capital to hand them over.

“I said, ‘I’m the bloke who rang you up, I’ve got two bags of dinosaur bones here,’ and they looked at each other like, ‘Here’s another one’—they get people coming in all the time,” Foster told The New York Times. But then he showed the scientists the distinctive, opal-encrusted fossils. “I opened them and threw the bones all out on the table and they were diving to catch them before they landed on the floor. They changed their approach.”

The museum sent army reservists to excavate more fossils at Lightning Ridge. Yet for a long time, nobody studied them. In fact, Foster later found some of the fossils on display at an opal store in Sydney. He recovered some and donated them to the Australian Opal Center in 2015. After this, other scientists started examining them. On June 3, 2019, they published the first study of Foster’s fossils in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

The fossils represent at least four members of Fostoria dhimbangunmal, a new species named after Foster as well as the opal field where he found the bones. ‘Dhimbangunmal’ means ‘sheep yard’ in the Indigenous language of the Yuwaalaraay, Yuwaalayaay and Gamilaraay peoples near Lightning Ridge. Foster’s wife Jenny, who is Gamilaraay Aboriginal, chose the name to honor them.

The F. dhimbangunmal was a herbivore with a horse-shaped skull who lived during the mid-Cretaceous period, when Lightning Ridge was a floodplain rich in vegetation. The specific dinosaurs Foster found were mostly juveniles, with one probable adult stretching 16 feet in length.

These fossils constitute the first herd or family group discovered in Australia, as well as the largest known collection of dino fossils preserved in opal. Dinosaur discoveries are rare in Australia compared to those in northern continents like Asia and North America, but paleontologists believe we may discover many more in the future.

In 2018, the same scientists who identified F. dhimbangunmal announced they’d found another new species, the Weewarrasaurus pobeni, about 25 miles southwest of Lightning Ridge. Like the fossils Foster discovered at Sheepyard, the lower jaw of the W. pobeni was preserved in sparkling opal.


The traditional owners of the land around Lightning Ridge are the Yuwaalaraay people. [2] Yuwaalayaay (also known as Yuwalyai, Euahlayi, Yuwaaliyaay, Gamilaraay, Kamilaroi, Yuwaaliyaayi) is an Australian Aboriginal language spoken on Yuwaalayaay country. It is closely related to the Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay languages. The Yuwaalayaay language region includes the landscape within the local government boundaries of the Shire of Balonne, including the town of Dirranbandi as well as the border town of Goodooga extending to Walgett and the Narran Lakes in New South Wales. [3]

After they were displaced by the establishment of colonial pastoral stations, many Yuwaalaraay people stayed on as labourers, but were increasingly dispersed in the early 20th century. In 1936, several indigenous families living at a local government settlement were forced to move to the Brewarrina settlement. [4]

By the mid 1800s, British colonialists settled in the area, initially using the land for pastoral activities. [5]

The name Lightning Ridge is said to have originated when in the 1870s, some passers-by found the bodies of a farmer, his dog, and 200 sheep, which had been struck by lightning. [6] [7]

Europeans did not discover the potential for opal mining in Lightning Ridge until the late 1800s. In 1905, the first shafts were dug, with the unique Black Opal soon attracting attention of fossickers in established mining towns such as White Cliffs. [8] Charlie Nettleton, an early pioneer in the area, walked 700 km (430 mi) from White Cliffs to see the Black Opal, walking back to White Cliffs the following year to develop a market and selling black opals to Ted Murphy, who later became the first resident opal buyer in Lightning Ridge. Nettleton, now regarded as the founder of the black opal industry, is commemorated with a life-sized bronze statue, the "Spirit of Lightning Ridge" it is located in the town at 7 Morilla Street. [9] [10]

At the 2001 census, the town had a population of 1,826, of whom 344 (18.8%) were Indigenous Australians. [11] The population is said to be highly variable, as transient miners come and go over time. Prior to the 2004 public inquiry into the functioning of Walgett Shire, it worked on the basis that about 7,000 people were in the town, but the enquiry found that this estimate was not supported by the 2001 census and contrasted with the 1,109 people who voted in the town at the local government elections in 2004. [12] At the 2006 census, the population of Lightning Ridge had increased to 2,602 people. [13]

By the 2016 census the population had fallen slightly to 2,284, with a median age of 51.

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people made up 22.7% of the population.
  • About 69.2% of people were born in Australia, with other top countries of birth being England 1.9%, Germany 1.5%, and the Philippines 1.4%.
  • Around 79.1% of people only spoke English at home.
  • The most common responses for religion were no religion 29.3%, Anglican 22.1%, and Catholic 18.7%. [1] Christianity was the largest religious group reported overall (62.9%).

The town was listed as one of the poorest places in the state according to the 2015 Dropping Off The Edge report. [14]

Climate data for Lightning Ridge
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °C (°F) 48.5
(119.3)
47.2
(117.0)
42.0
(107.6)
36.1
(97.0)
32.0
(89.6)
27.2
(81.0)
28.8
(83.8)
36.2
(97.2)
39.3
(102.7)
41.5
(106.7)
44.5
(112.1)
43.6
(110.5)
48.5
(119.3)
Average high °C (°F) 36.1
(97.0)
34.9
(94.8)
32.4
(90.3)
28.1
(82.6)
23.2
(73.8)
19.4
(66.9)
19.3
(66.7)
21.6
(70.9)
26.2
(79.2)
29.4
(84.9)
31.9
(89.4)
34.6
(94.3)
28.1
(82.6)
Average low °C (°F) 22.5
(72.5)
21.7
(71.1)
19.0
(66.2)
14.4
(57.9)
9.1
(48.4)
6.6
(43.9)
4.9
(40.8)
6.1
(43.0)
10.4
(50.7)
14.2
(57.6)
18.2
(64.8)
20.2
(68.4)
13.9
(57.0)
Record low °C (°F) 11.5
(52.7)
10.3
(50.5)
5.0
(41.0)
2.0
(35.6)
0.0
(32.0)
−3.5
(25.7)
−4.4
(24.1)
−2.2
(28.0)
1.5
(34.7)
4.9
(40.8)
6.0
(42.8)
5.0
(41.0)
−4.4
(24.1)
Average precipitation mm (inches) 50.6
(1.99)
40.0
(1.57)
40.7
(1.60)
27.6
(1.09)
25.0
(0.98)
47.3
(1.86)
30.2
(1.19)
18.2
(0.72)
30.6
(1.20)
40.3
(1.59)
55.5
(2.19)
59.5
(2.34)
478.2
(18.83)
Average precipitation days 5.8 4.5 5.3 3.4 4.0 5.5 4.9 4.0 4.3 5.5 7.1 7.2 61.5
Average afternoon relative humidity (%) 35 38 38 41 44 54 48 38 33 34 39 33 40
Source: [15]

The Lightning Ridge Opal and Gem Festival takes place yearly. [16] The town has a five-star Olympic pool, which features a diving complex, a rock climbing wall, and water theme park that operates during the summer holidays. Parts of the pool are protected by shade, and the complex has barbecue facilities. The Ella Nagy Youth Centre opened in 2000 it features a skatepark. Until 2011, Lightning Ridge hosted an annual goat race in the town's main street and a rodeo on the Easter long weekend. Goats were harnessed and driven by children, much like harness racing in equine sports. The goat races were accompanied by wheelie-bin races, and horse racing the following day.

Some artists have settled in and around Lightning Ridge. One of the most famous local Australian painters is John Murray, who brings the impressions of the Outback, often in a situation with man or fauna onto the canvas.

Lightning Ridge is an important paleontological site, with fossils dating back to the Cretaceous period, 110 million years ago. The sandstone rock once formed the bottom of a shallow inland sea, where the remains of aquatic plants and animals were preserved. The site is especially important as a source of fossils of ancient mammals, which, at that time, were small creatures living in a world dominated by dinosaurs. The fossils are sometimes opalised and discovered by opal miners. Important discoveries at Lightning Ridge include the ancestral monotremes Kollikodon ritchiei and Steropodon galmani. [17] In June 2019, a new species of dinosaur, Fostoria dhimbangunmal was described from fossils retrieved from Lightning Ridge. The plant-eating species lived at least 100 million years ago. It is the most complete dinosaur fossil to be found preserved as opal. [18]

Since August 1992 when the Mining Act 1992 commenced, fossicking licences have not been required for fossicking in New South Wales. DPI Mineral Resources.

Under the terms of this act, fossicking may now be carried out anywhere in the state providing these conditions are met:

•No other act or law applies which would prevent it
•The landholder's consent is obtained
•The consent of any public or local authority having the management, control, or trusteeship of the land is obtained
•The titleholder's consent is also obtained, where the location is covered by a current title under the Mining Act 1992 Legislation. (This title may be an exploration licence, assessment lease, mining lease, mineral claim or Opal Prospecting Licence).

Lightning Ridge has an abundance of hot water from a bore spring into the Great Artesian Basin and offers two hot-water pools for bathing. [19] The public can tap mineral water at a hose in Harlequin Street. The Hot Artesian Bore Baths and Nettletons Shaft, on McDonald's Six Mile Opal Field, have been placed on the Register of the National Estate.

Australian comedian, actor and television presenter Paul Hogan claimed to be from Lightning Ridge to improve his chances to appear on Australian talent contest New Faces, but was actually born in Sydney. As the myth helped drive tourism to Lightning Ridge, Hogan has avoided correcting the record. [20]


Hold on a sec .

The jawbone of the Weewarrasaurus pobeni. It is named for the mine where it was found and the man who discovered it. (Robert A. Smith/University of New England)

The Wee Warra opal field is near Lightning Ridge, New South Wales—a town world-famous for its opals. In 2013, an opal buyer from Adelaide named Michael Poben was sifting through recent finds to see if there was anything worth buying. Something unusual from Wee Warra caught his eye.

This realization led Poben to donate the fossil to the Australian Opal Centre in Lightning Ridge. In 2014, the fossil was first seen by Phil Bell, a paleontologist at the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales. He spent the next few years studying the fossil and wrote the new report that announced the Weewarrasaurus to the world.

This critter was about the size of a golden retriever, which is adorable. (Who wouldn't want their own dino doggy?) The fossil is about 100 million years old, and is the first new dinosaur named from the state of New South Wales in almost 100 years.


PRECIOUS RELICS FROM THE AGE OF DINOSAURS

At the heart of the Australian Opal Centre is a magnificent collection of 100-million-year-old fossils, from the Early Cretaceous period. It was a time when dinosaurs and other ancient creatures lived where Lightning Ridge now stands, and when ancient reptiles swam in a shallow sea covering much of inland Australia, including where the opal fields of White Cliffs, Coober Pedy, Andamooka, Mintabie and Lambina are now.

These are no ordinary fossils (if there is such a thing): these incredible relics are made of solid opal. They are Australian National Treasures, of global scientific interest, and among the most beautiful and valuable fossils in the world.

How do opalised fossils form?
Opal forms in cavities within rocks. If the cavity is there because part of a living thing – for example a bone, shell or pinecone – was buried in the sand or clay before it turned to stone, then the opal can form a fossil replica of the object that was buried.

A fossil is simply “the remains or traces of an ancient animal or plant preserved in rock”. Opalised fossils form in ways similar to other fossils, except that here they are preserved in silica. Elsewhere, fossils are preserved in minerals such as agate, pyrite or limestone.

The sediments that buried plant and animal remains in the opal fields were rich in silica from ancient volcanoes, so here we have fossils preserved as silica in the form of opal.

Opalisation of plants and animal remains happens in two ways, and at Lightning Ridge, a combination of the following two processes is seen in many specimens.

  • Internal details not preserved (‘jelly mould’ fossils). Opal starts as silica dissolved in water. When the silica solution fills an empty cavity left by a shell or bone that has rotted away – like jelly poured in a mould – it may harden to form an opalised cast of the original object. In these fossils, outside features can be beautifully preserved, but the internal structures are not recorded.
  • Internal details preserved. If the silica seeps into the organic material before it decomposes, then the organic molecules can be replaced by silica. This preserves very fine details of structures inside the bone or plant. When the silica is transparent, this internal anatomy is visible from the outside: the fossil is ‘see through’.

Opalised Fossils of Lightning Ridge

What is important about Lightning Ridge’s opalised fossils?

  • They can be incredibly beautiful!
  • They are providing new and fascinating information about Australia's ancient heritage and the evolution of plants, animals and environments on the Australian continent.
  • Of all the Australian opal fields, Lightning Ridge and some boulder opal fields are the only places that have opalised fossils of land-living and freshwater plants and animals. The other Australian opal fields have fossils of saltwater or marine organisms, which provide other important information about Australia's past and the ancient Eromanga Sea.
  • Australia is the only place on earth that produces opalised bones of land-living animals including dinosaurs – and most of these are from Lightning Ridge.
  • Lightning Ridge is the only significant dinosaur site in New South Wales. Opalised bones from fields like Coober Pedy, Andamooka and White Cliffs are from plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs and pliosaurs, which are marine reptiles, not dinosaurs.
  • Fossils are preserved here in silica in the form of opal. Some of them are see-through, including the only transparent fossils of large animal bones in the world.
  • The Lightning Ridge fossils are of plants and animals that lived close to the South Pole, in global greenhouse conditions, in habitats unknown anywhere today. They are a window onto Australia’s past - important for scientists who study the evolution of Australian plants, or dinosaurs, or mammals, or climate change, geology and many other aspects of earth history.
  • Fossil formation is closely linked to opal formation. Study of opalised fossils could provide important new information on opal formation, and help with opal exploration and prospecting.

Types of Lightning Ridge Opalised Fossils

Plants
Tonnes of opalised plant fossil is extracted from Lightning Ridge opal mines each year. Although some is exquisitely preserved, most is too fragmentary to be informative – other than to show how richly vegetated the area once was.

Diverse pine cones, drupes, stems and seeds are found, sometimes glittering with gem colour.

100 million years ago, Lightning Ridge was heavily forested with conifers such as Araucarian, podocarp and Kauri pine trees, towering over ferns, seed ferns and ground pines, fungi and lichens, mosses, liverworts and horsetails.

Large pieces of silicified wood are also found in the opal mines however, these larger pieces are rarely opalised.

Molluscs
Bivalve and gastropod molluscs (mussels and snails) are the most commonly-found opalised fossils at Lightning Ridge. The freshwater species found at Lightning Ridge differ from the molluscs found at White Cliffs and in South Australia, which lived in a marine environment.

Mines that intersect with palaeochannels sometimes contain rich deposits of bivalve molluscs. Occasionally, concentrations of whelks form dense death assemblages in sandstone.

Many different species of opalised mollusc have been found at Lightning Ridge. Although some are relatively common, others are rare.

Freshwater crayfish
The opalised gastroliths of freshwater crayfish are known locally as ‘yabby buttons.’ Crayfish use gastroliths to store calcium from their exoskeletons (‘shells’) before they moult, then release the calcium to harden their new protective coating. Fossil yabby buttons are usually around 10-12mm across.

Sharks
Fossil shark teeth are rare at Lightning Ridge. Nevertheless, their discovery from time to time suggests that at the time the opal-bearing sediments were laid down, Lightning Ridge wasn’t too far from the shore of the sea that covered much of inland Australia.

Lungfish
At least three species of lungfish lived at Lightning Ridge in the Early Cretaceous period. We know them from the opalised toothplates found in the mines.

Bony fish
A variety of freshwater bony fish from ancient Lightning Ridge have left traces of themselves as opalised fossils, mostly jaw bones and backbones. Relatively few have been recovered, probably because most are so small or fragile that they are not noticed, or are destroyed by the mining machinery.

Frogs
The oldest frog fossil known in Australia is a tiny opalised upper jaw found in a mine at the Coocoran fields, Lightning Ridge.

Turtles
Lightning Ridge’s fossils include at least three kinds of land- and swamp-living turtles, including the world’s oldest horned turtle (meiolaniid).

Crocodiles
Three different species of crocodile have been identified so far among Lightning Ridge’s opalised fossils. All appear to have been from relatively small crocodiles. The Australian Opal Centre has teeth, back bones and scutes (bony armour from beneath the skin) of these 100-million-year-old crocs.

Plesiosaurs
Plesiosaurs were swimming reptiles that lived during the dinosaur era – the 'reptilian seals' of their time. Some lived in the sea and some in fresh water. Some sea-living plesiosaurs swam upstream to breed.

At Lightning Ridge, opalised plesiosaur teeth are found relatively commonly, but plesiosaur bones are extremely rare. The teeth indicate at least two different kinds of plesiosaur.

Dinosaurs
Lightning Ridge is blessed with the opalised remains of several kinds of dinosaur: sauropods, theropods, ornithopods, ornithomimosaurids and ankylosaurs. They range in size from the ridiculously enormous to little chicken-sized dinos!

At the Australian Opal Centre we have opalised dinosaur teeth, limb bones, back bones, toe bones, claws and pieces of rib, pelvis and shoulder. Most are in grey, black or amber-coloured potch, but some shimmer with colour. In some opal mines you can even look up to see the underside of dinosaur footprints in the roof.

Pterosaurs
Pterosaurs were flying reptiles that lived with the dinosaurs, went extinct with the dinosaurs and left no living relatives. Uncrushed pterosaur fossils are quite rare globally, because the bones were hollow and thin-walled. A small number of opalised pterosaur bones have been found at Lightning Ridge.

Snakes
Snake bones are very delicate and fragile. So far we know of only one opalised snake fossil from Lightning Ridge – a tiny fragment of lower jaw – but as greater care is taken to retrieve tiny fossils from underground, it is likely that further snake fossils will be found.

Birds
Just a few tiny bird bones have been found, and perhaps a bird tooth!

Mammals
Lightning Ridge made the cover of the prestigious journal Nature when its first opalised monotreme mammal was found – the jaw of a platypus-like creature named Steropodon.

Since then, other rare but important monotreme fossils have been discovered, including vertebrae (back bones) that have been donated to the Australian Opal Centre. These are the only opalised monotreme vertebrae in a public collection anywhere in the world.

Sincere thanks to every contributor to the collection of the Australian Opal Centre. Thanks to you, the Centre has the world's most diverse and scientifically significant collection of opalised fossils.

Many items in the Centre’s collection have been donated with the support of the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program our thanks also to the administrators of that program.


How Do Opalized Fossils Form?

Paleontologists have uncovered dinosaur fossils from all parts of the world — from China to North America. However, the fascinating feature of these opalized fossils is the land from which they came.

Long before humans mined for opals in the Australian Outback, dinosaurs roamed the supercontinent that conjoined Africa, Antarctica, India, and South America.

Millions of years ago, the climate here was mild, a stark contrast to the arid, dusty terrain it is now. The landscape was flooded with lush vegetation that grew from the myriad of waterways, rivers, and floodplains that lined the supercontinent.

During the Cretaceous period, there was a shallow sea that blanketed a third of the continent. Thriving in this seabed were a spectrum of prehistoric marine life including fish, reptiles, and invertebrates.

Over the course of the next million years, sediments from animals and plant-life were lost buried underneath compounding layers of sand.

As the supercontinent spread apart, silica crystals fell into the cracks and crevices of the earth, coating these fossils and encrusting them in glistening opal.

The result? Prehistoric relics of opalized fossils from fish, birds, mammals, and, of course, dinosaurs!

Let’s explore some of the exciting discoveries of Australian Outback animal fossils found in the opal fields.


Scientists and Miners Team Up to Preserve Opalized Fossils

Cloaked in white dust and surrounded by expansive plains, the town of Lightning Ridge produces the bulk of the world’s precious black opal. This rare gemstone, prized for its dazzling play of color, hides out of sight in the Australian outback beneath a town roughly 450 miles northwest of Sydney. And for more than 100 years, people have come to the Ridge to find their fortune chasing precious opal.

As it turns out, these miners have been uncovering not just opal, but opalized fossils: Bones, teeth, shells and plant material turned to opal, embedded in the ancient claystone and preserved, like the gemstones, for 100 million years under a thin veneer of sediment. Some of the opalized fossils unearthed at Lightning Ridge represent animal species found nowhere else, and they are packed with information from the Cretaceous Period—the tail end of the age of the dinosaurs. The prehistoric remains—some smaller than a fingernail—can be found edging out of mine face, or in the piles of discarded opal-bearing dirt, churned out by miners by the truckload.

“If it were not for the opal miners—many of whom have sharp eyes and regard the fossils with as great a sense of awe as paleontologists do—we would not have, or know anything about, these fossils,” says paleontologist, gemologist and long-term resident of the Ridge, Jenni Brammall. As valuable as the fossils might be to science, miners are usually the first to lay eyes on them, and this presents a conundrum: Opal miners hold the mineral rights to whatever opal they find in their registered mineral claim, and that includes opalized fossils. When money gets tight—and it often does—a miner might destroy an opalized fossil in the hope of extracting saleable precious opal, or sell the fossil overseas where it can fetch a hefty sum. Sometimes they keep the fossils they find for their sentimental value, leaving them tucked away in private collections.

Opalized fossils from the collection of the Australian Opal Centre, in the hand of Lightning Ridge opal miner Butch McFadden. The largest piece is a tail bone from the dinosaur Fostoria dhimbangunmal. (Jenni Brammall / Australian Opal Center)

For decades, Brammall and a small group of peers have been treading a fine line to help the community understand the value of opalized fossils while urging them to donate particularly rare finds. A cornerstone of their efforts is the Australian Opal Center, which was founded in the late 1990s and has quickly outgrown its small showroom on the main street of town. The center holds the most diverse public collection of opalized fossils in the world, largely amassed through donations by opal miners, many of whom bestow their finds through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program, which offers tax deductions to donors.

But despite these efforts, countless opalized fossils are being lost to the black market, pushed out of the reach of research institutions by the highest bidder. This is why Brammall and her colleagues are ramping up their efforts, planning and designing an iconic museum and research facility to be built at the historic Three Mile opal field outside of town to showcase the unrivalled natural heritage of the region. They are also working to raise funds to purchase precious fossils unearthed at the Ridge so they can be preserved in perpetuity in a public collection, accessible to both the community and researchers.

The mining community, which is struggling through the current drought and always at the mercy of opal buyers and their temperamental tastes, recognizes that things need to change to ensure a sustainable future for the town, and they are largely supportive of the paleontologists’ efforts.

Echoing other residents, Barbara Moritz, who came to Lightning Ridge with an opal miner in the 1990s, says the new Australian Opal Center “can’t come soon enough.”

The opalized remains of Eric, a pliosaur from the Mesozoic Era, were discovered in 1987 by an opal miner at Coober Pedy, South Australia. Today they’re displayed at the Australian Museum in Sydney. (Stuart Humphreys via Australian Museum)

Opal is found commonly around the world, but precious opal is very rare and geologists say nothing compares to that produced in Central Australia. Opalized fossils have likewise been found at other opal fields in Australia, but Lightning Ridge stands out for preserving the greatest diversity of extinct freshwater and land-living creatures, including dinosaurs galore. A hundred million years ago, the now-arid interior of Australia was flooded by a vast inland sea, and Lightning Ridge sat on its edge. As the sea retreated, the leading theory goes, it exposed a peculiar mix of sediments forming a sandstone laced with reactive minerals. Rocks nearer the surface began to weather, producing a groundwater rich in silica. It lay in cracks in the rock and filled any cavities, including the skeletal remains of dinosaurs and other long-extinct creatures.

Elizabeth Smith, a paleontologist who has studied the opalized fossils of Lightning Ridge for decades, has seen it all: shark’s teeth, turtle bones, lungfish, pinecones, birds, marine reptiles, plus all sorts of dinosaur bones and teeth. Teeth are the most revealing, Smith explains, particularly the ones comprised of so-called common opal, which lacks the brilliant color of precious opal but may be translucent. “To be able to see the very fine-scale anatomy inside the tooth, the serrations, is really something,” she says.

Smith was first drawn to the Ridge in the 1970s, long before the Australian Opal Center was even a whisper on the horizon. She later moved to live there permanently when opal mining was booming in the 󈨞s. While her husband was digging for opal, Smith was searching for fossils. Now, alongside Brammall, she is working to find a way forward where opalized fossils benefit the whole community. The pair talk often and openly with opal miners about the wondrous fossils of Lightning Ridge so that people appreciate just how extraordinary they are. Still, Smith says, over the years, she has seen some “mighty important” fossils held in private hands, or sold overseas.

A fragment of wood transformed into precious opal, donated to the Australian Opal Center by Absolute Opals & Gems. (Robert A. Smith / Australian Opal Center)

Speak to any opal miner and they’ll be quick to tell you their treasures are hard-won. Opal mining is grueling work, physically and emotionally, and “a good way to go broke very quickly,” says Kelly Tishler, a third-generation miner from Lightning Ridge. Miners mostly work alone or in pairs, and many live off-grid in self-made shacks or caravans on their mineral claim, a small plot of government-owned or private land where miners hold an exclusive license to prospect and mine for opal. Some have secondary businesses to supplement their income. Petar Borkovic, for example, runs Outback Opal Tours with his wife. “But I’m an opal miner. It’s in my blood,” he says, grinning through the noise at the Sheepyard Inn, a pub in the middle of the Grawin opal fields, southwest of Lightning Ridge.

Before the Australian Opal Center was in town, specimens of interest that had been acquired from miners were sent to far-away natural history museums, including the Australian Museum in Sydney, where two of Lightning Ridge’s most famed fossils reside. Steropodon galmani was the first mammal from the Mesozoic Era found in Australia, and Kollikodon ritchiei, the second. Taken together, they hint at the diversity of Australia’s early mammals. These tiny specimens, little more than an inch long, are immensely important, says Matthew McCurry, curator of paleontology at the Australian Museum. “They’re [among] the earliest representatives of mammals here in Australia,” McCurry explains, and, when they were discovered, the oldest trace of monotremes in the world.

“Any opal specimen is of immense scientific value” because it offers a unique window into Australia’s past, says fellow paleontologist Paul Willis, an adjunct associate professor at Flinders University in South Australia. Our imagination might run wild with the dinosaurs that roamed through the Jurassic and into the Cretaceous, but mammals also proliferated during that time, including the ancestors of Australia’s unique egg-laying monotremes, the platypus and echidna.

This opalized jawbone from Steropodon galmani, the first mammal from the Mesozoic Era found in Australia, hints at the spectacular diversity of early mammals on the continent. (Australian Museum)

Willis knows all too well how fortunate scientists and all Australians are to have these specimens in public collections. As a Ph.D. student at the University of New South Wales in the 1980s, he was tasked by the Australian Museum with reconstructing the fossilized skeleton of a small marine reptile, a pliosaur, which had been haphazardly excavated by opal miners in Coober Pedy in South Australia. Eric, as the pliosaur was nicknamed, remains the most complete opalized vertebrate fossil skeleton found to date, but it arrived, unceremoniously, at the museum in a box. A wealthy property developer had purchased the skeleton and was paying for it to be prepared for display. That is, until he went bankrupt. Suddenly, Eric was up for grabs. A public fundraising campaign raked in more than 500,000 Australian dollars so that the museum could acquire the national treasure and put it on show.

Clockwise from top left: A translucent opalized fossil turtle tail bone, donated to the Australian Opal Center by opal miners Graeme and Christine Thompson. An opalized freshwater snail, donated by opal miner David Sanders. An opalized dinosaur toe bone, donated by Matthew Goodwin. An opalized tail bone from the dinosaur Fostoria dhimbangunmal, donated by Gregory Foster and Joanne Foster. (Robert A. Smith / Australian Opal Center)

It has taken similarly sizeable sums to secure other one-of-a-kind opalized fossils so they can be duly recognized in public collections and protected for generations to come. The first mammal from the Mesozoic Era found in Australia, Steropodon galmani, was purchased by the Australian Museum in 1984 as part of a collection of opalized fossils from opal dealers David and Alex Galman for AU$80,000. The second, Kollikodon ritchiei, on its own, had an AU$10,000 price tag.

More than 80,000 people visit the Ridge each year, a number that continues to rise. Many come specifically to see the opalized fossils on display at the Australian Opal Center. One morning in late April, the showroom is crowded with groups of people hovering around the display cabinets. Several visitors approach Smith to ask about Weewarrasaurus, having come all the way to Lightning Ridge for the dinosaurs and hoping to see the latest gem in the center’s collection.

Just last year, a new species of plant-eating dinosaur was described from an opalized jawbone with a few ribbed teeth intact that was found near Lightning Ridge. It was named Weewarrasaurus pobeni for the opal dealer, Mike Poben, who generously donated the sparkly specimen to the Australian Opal Center after he discovered it, miraculously, in a bag of rough opal purchased from miners from the Wee Warra opal field. After meeting visiting paleontologist Phil Bell, who knew immediately it was something extraordinary, Bell says Poben decided to donate the fossil “to make sure it became known to the world.”

Building plans for the new Australian Opal Center, which will be constructed in the arid landscape of Lightning Ridge, New South Wales. (Architects Glenn Murcutt and Wendy Lewin, model maker Little Models, and photographer Penelope Clay / Australian Opal Center)

“Having the Opal Center in the town as part of the community is absolutely vital to safeguarding these treasures,” says Bell, a lecturer at the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales, Australia. There is a very real concern amongst people in Lightning Ridge that their fossil material stays in its place of origin, adds Smith. The community, she says, understands the scale of what has been lost. “The material has been coming out of the ground the whole time the miners have been digging,” but the presence of fossils—and their scientific value—has only come to light gradually over the last few decades.

Brammall and Smith share their expert fossil knowledge with the miners who bring them to the Australian Opal Center, asking for help to identify a specimen, so miners can understand the history they hold in their hands. The miners often have outrageous ideas about what they’ve found, which Smith says is all part of the fun, but every now and then, someone brings in something “really significant.” From her wallet, she retrieves a tiny opalized tooth that she has on loan from an opal dealer. Smith thinks it is a crocodile tooth but points out the unusual features at its base. It will be photographed and then returned to the owner. “Whether or not it comes into the collection, I’ve got no idea,” she says.

“We rely on the miners—and for them to do the right thing,” Smith says. Alas, opalized fossils continue to be sold on a daily basis as highly-prized collector’s items, and paleontologists are unable to recover them. Money has always been the problem. Having spent tens of thousands of dollars to keep digging, their savings sunk into machinery and fuel, few miners are in a position to hand over opalized fossils, and museums have, for decades, lacked the necessary funds to purchase them at fair prices. “We are losing our cultural heritage because we do not have the funds to secure these opal fossils,” attests Willis.

Exporting opalized fossils from Australia without a permit is outlawed under the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act of 1986, but the biggest markets for opal are outside of Australia and a miner might just be looking to make ends meet. In dire times, things get unsentimental. “One thing about opal mining is you can’t tell another opal miner what to do with his [or her] opal,” declares Tishler, gazing out at the rocky ridges from the overturned Three Mile opal field, one of the first fields in the area. A self-confessed “fossil nut,” Tishler says she has her own private collection of opalized fossils, which she plans to bequeath to the Australian Opal Center, but she also admits to selling her grandmother’s opal jewelry in times of hardship.

Opalized tooth from a theropod dinosaur, found and donated to the Australian Opal Center by Cybele Sousa de Lemos. (Robert A. Smith / Australian Opal Center)

Brammall and Smith focus on what they can do for the Lightning Ridge community, not what has been lost. “We gain more than we lose,” says Brammall of their efforts, which start with regarding miners as collaborators and treating them with the respect they deserve. Encouragingly, one major opalized fossil haul from the Ridge, an assemblage of dinosaur bones, including the world’s most complete opalized dinosaur skeleton, recently came into the collection 31 years after it was first discovered. In the future, an acquisition fund would mean that the Australian Opal Center could respond swiftly and need no longer rely on limited federal funding when such treasures are on offer.

But the first step has been to secure backing for the world-class facility that will house and display the growing Australian Opal Center collection. It is hoped that the museum heralds a new future for Lightning Ridge, one that recognizes the deep history of the land and the legacy of opal mining alongside the celebrated opalized fossils while drawing new visitors to the remote town and providing a long-awaited global hub for opal-related science and education. With funding from local, state and federal governments—and a significant contribution from the community itself—the new center has been designed by renowned Australian architects and construction will be soon be underway.

For Smith, the new museum represents a long-held promise to the community. She knows of a few fossils of major scientific importance out there in private hands, which others agree would be “game-changing” in their respective fields. Smith keeps the specimens in her sights, tantalizingly close, believing that the new Australian Opal Center will embolden more people to share their fossil collections.

“They want their fossils safe,” Brammall says, “in a public collection, on the opal fields.”

Clare Watson is an Australian writer and freelance journalist specializing in science. Her work has appeared in, among other publications, Australian Geographic, Smith Journal and Lateral Magazine, and aired on ABC Radio National (Australia).

This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.


Bundle of bones

Long-time Lightning Ridge opal miner Bob Foster found the fossil in 1986. Scientists at Sydney’s Australian Museum, along with Australian Army reservists, helped Foster excavate the find as an accumulation of dinosaur bones embedded in blocks of rock, with the museum then taking the fossils into their collections.

But the fact they were left languishing unstudied for 15 years or so and put on display at a Sydney opal store led Foster to decide to reclaim his discovery. He returned it to Lightning Ridge, and his family eventually donated it to a local museum, the Australian Opal Centre, where Bell was able to study the find.

As a one-of-a-kind fossil assemblage, the scientists left most of the bones embedded in the rocks and instead used a CT scanner to digitally extract them for research.

“We originally thought it was one skeleton, but once we began to study the individual bones, we realized … there were parts of four scapulae, or shoulder blades, all of different sizes,” he explains.

About 60 of the bones are from a probable adult that was 16 feet in length, while the others are from juveniles of various sizes, prompting Bell to speculate that they were the remains of either a family or small herd of herbivorous dinosaurs.

“We have bones from all parts of the body, but not a complete skeleton,” he says. “These include bones from the ribs, arms, skull, back, tail, hips, and legs. So, it’s one of the most completely known dinosaurs in Australia … [with] 15 to 20 percent of the skeleton of the species.”

The name Fostoria honors Bob Foster, while the species name dhimbangunmal means ‘sheep yard’ in the local Yuwaalaraay and Yuwaalayaay Aboriginal languages. It was chosen by Foster’s wife Jenny, who is Gamilaraay Aboriginal, to honor the Sheepyard locality where Foster’s now defunct mine once operated.


Like no place on Earth

Hundreds of small mines pockmark this arid landscape 450 miles northwest of Sydney. But dinosaur fossils are found here only rarely, so Bell says it is miraculous to have uncovered a fossilized jaw with teeth. (See photos of an opal mining community that lives underground in South Australia.)

“It’s a truly unique area,” he adds. “There’s no place in the world like this, where you have dinosaurs preserved in beautiful opal.” This nearly 100-million-year-old specimen is hewn from the brightly colored gemstone, which formed over the course of eons from the concentration of silica-rich solutions underground.

The fossil was found in 2013 by Adelaide-based opal dealer Mike Poben, for whom the new species was named. He had bought a bag of rough opal from miners and picked through it for fossils, as he always does. One unusual piece caught his eye.

“A voice in the back of my head said, teeth,” he recalls. “I thought, Oh my God, if I have teeth here, then this is a jawbone.”

Poben held on to the potentially toothy specimen and sent the remaining opal out with a so-called runner, whose job it was to drive around Lightning Ridge trying to find a buyer. After nine days, the runner returned the bag unsold, so Poben had a further look through its contents.

“I found another piece of bone, smaller with sockets, turned it over, and then things really started exploding in my head,” he says. “When I lined the pieces up, I realized I had two pieces from the same jawbone.”

Bell, the paleontologist who would go on to formally describe the dinosaur, says his own jaw dropped the first time he saw the highly valuable fossil with its distinctive teeth in 2014. Poben subsequently donated the fossil to the Australian Opal Centre, a Lightning Ridge museum with the world’s largest collection of opalized fossils.


Earth Science Club of Northern Illinois - ESCONI

National Geographic has a story about an opalized dinosaur fossil discovered in Australia's Lightning Ridge.  The fossils were found from a mine near Wee Warra in New South Wales and belong to a newly named dinosaur species called Weewarrasaurus pobeni.  The animal was a herbivore about the size of a Labrador retriever.  It lived about 100 million years ago in the mid-Cretaceous.  The most striking feature of its skeleton is that its bones are made of opal.  The bones were actually found in 2013 by Adelaide-based opal dealer Mike Poben.  A full description can be found in this paper in the journal PeerJ.

“As a paleontologist I am interested, really, in the anatomy—the bones, and in this case, the teeth,” says lead author Phil Bell of the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales.

“But when you’re working in Lightning Ridge,” Bell says, “you can’t ignore the fact that some of these things are preserved in spectacular opal that’s all the colors of the rainbow.”

Like no place on Earth
Hundreds of small mines pockmark this arid landscape 450 miles northwest of Sydney. But dinosaur fossils are found here only rarely, so Bell says it is miraculous to have uncovered a fossilized jaw with teeth. (See photos of an opal mining community that lives underground in South Australia.)

“It’s a truly unique area,” he adds. “There’s no place in the world like this, where you have dinosaurs preserved in beautiful opal.” This nearly 100-million-year-old specimen is hewn from the brightly colored gemstone, which formed over the course of eons from the concentration of silica-rich solutions underground.

The fossil was found in 2013 by Adelaide-based opal dealer Mike Poben, for whom the new species was named. He had bought a bag of rough opal from miners and picked through it for fossils, as he always does. One unusual piece caught his eye.

“A voice in the back of my head said, teeth,” he recalls. “I thought, Oh my God, if I have teeth here, then this is a jawbone.”

Poben held on to the potentially toothy specimen and sent the remaining opal out with a so-called runner, whose job it was to drive around Lightning Ridge trying to find a buyer. After nine days, the runner returned the bag unsold, so Poben had a further look through its contents.

“I found another piece of bone, smaller with sockets, turned it over, and then things really started exploding in my head,” he says. “When I lined the pieces up, I realized I had two pieces from the same jawbone.”

Bell, the paleontologist who would go on to formally describe the dinosaur, says his own jaw dropped the first time he saw the highly valuable fossil with its distinctive teeth in 2014. Poben subsequently donated the fossil to the Australian Opal Centre, a Lightning Ridge museum with the world’s largest collection of opalized fossils.

Posted on January 12, 2019 | Permalink

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JAMES KUETHER/UNIVERSITY OF NEW ENGLAND

National Geographic has a story about an opalized dinosaur fossil discovered in Australia's Lightning Ridge.  The fossils were found from a mine near Wee Warra in New South Wales and belong to a newly named dinosaur species called Weewarrasaurus pobeni.  The animal was a herbivore about the size of a Labrador retriever.  It lived about 100 million years ago in the mid-Cretaceous.  The most striking feature of its skeleton is that its bones are made of opal.  The bones were actually found in 2013 by Adelaide-based opal dealer Mike Poben.  A full description can be found in this paper in the journal PeerJ.

“As a paleontologist I am interested, really, in the anatomy—the bones, and in this case, the teeth,” says lead author Phil Bell of the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales.

“But when you’re working in Lightning Ridge,” Bell says, “you can’t ignore the fact that some of these things are preserved in spectacular opal that’s all the colors of the rainbow.”

Like no place on Earth
Hundreds of small mines pockmark this arid landscape 450 miles northwest of Sydney. But dinosaur fossils are found here only rarely, so Bell says it is miraculous to have uncovered a fossilized jaw with teeth. (See photos of an opal mining community that lives underground in South Australia.)

“It’s a truly unique area,” he adds. “There’s no place in the world like this, where you have dinosaurs preserved in beautiful opal.” This nearly 100-million-year-old specimen is hewn from the brightly colored gemstone, which formed over the course of eons from the concentration of silica-rich solutions underground.

The fossil was found in 2013 by Adelaide-based opal dealer Mike Poben, for whom the new species was named. He had bought a bag of rough opal from miners and picked through it for fossils, as he always does. One unusual piece caught his eye.

“A voice in the back of my head said, teeth,” he recalls. “I thought, Oh my God, if I have teeth here, then this is a jawbone.”

Poben held on to the potentially toothy specimen and sent the remaining opal out with a so-called runner, whose job it was to drive around Lightning Ridge trying to find a buyer. After nine days, the runner returned the bag unsold, so Poben had a further look through its contents.

“I found another piece of bone, smaller with sockets, turned it over, and then things really started exploding in my head,” he says. “When I lined the pieces up, I realized I had two pieces from the same jawbone.”

Bell, the paleontologist who would go on to formally describe the dinosaur, says his own jaw dropped the first time he saw the highly valuable fossil with its distinctive teeth in 2014. Poben subsequently donated the fossil to the Australian Opal Centre, a Lightning Ridge museum with the world’s largest collection of opalized fossils.


Dinosaurs of the southern supercontinent

Weewarrasaurus adds to a rapidly growing roster of dinosaurs from the eastern part of the southern supercontinent of Gondwana. While there are fewer than 20 named Australian dinosaurs, this is the fourth species described since 2015, including a sauropod, Savannasaurus an ankylosaur, Kunbarrasaurus and another small ornithopod, Diluvicursor.

What is today a dry, dusty environment dotted with shrubby vegetation couldn’t have been more different at the time Weewarrasaurus lived there. During the mid-Cretaceous, Lightning Ridge was a lush area of lakes and waterways on the fringes of the prehistoric Eromanga Sea.

At that time, it was also at a latitude of 60 degrees south, much nearer to the Antarctic Circle. Lightning Ridge would have been about as near to the South Pole as the Finnish capital of Helsinki is to the North Pole today. The area had a temperate climate that rarely dipped below 4 degrees Celcius but experienced long, dark winters, with days when the sun rose above the horizon only briefly.


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