Images of tracks provided by Mount Morgan Historical Museum
Images of tracks provided by Mount Morgan Historical Museum

Jurassic scavenger hunt: Mt Morgan dinosaur mystery

A CHANCE encounter, a Harry Potter cupboard and an insatiable curiosity.

These are the three things that allowed UQ palaeontologist Dr Anthony Romilio to start piecing together the mystery behind Central Queensland’s most famous prehistoric site.

Roughly 40km south of Rockhampton lies the small historic township of Mount Morgan; an old gold mining settlement and home to the region’s legendary ‘dinosaur cave’.

This cave houses hundreds of fossil footprints and has the highest dinosaur track diversity on the entire eastern half of Australia.

However, for safety reasons the site has been closed for a decade, condemning this potential wealth of knowledge to remain untapped.

Dr Romilio had long dreamt of gaining access to the cave to study these fossils but was never able to secure government permission.

As such, he had all but given up on this dream when completely by chance, he came across an impressive archive of images depicting the fossils at, of all places, a farmer’s market in Brisbane.

Dr Romilio worked at the markets on weekends and it was there he met Dr Roslyn Dick, a local dentist and daughter of the late Ross Staines.

Ross Staines was a geologist based in Rockhampton in the 1950s who had researched the fossils extensively when they were discovered.

Dr Dick was able to provide Dr Romilio with her father’s entire archive as well as his dinosaur footprint plaster cast, which had been stored for years under the stairs in her sister’s ‘Harry Potter’ cupboard in Sydney.

With this new trove of information, Dr Romilio was able to form a virtual 3D model of the footprint and solve the long-held mystery of why the cave contains tracks on its ceiling.

“The tracks lining the cave-ceiling were not made by dinosaurs hanging up-side-down, instead the dinosaurs walked on the lake sediment and these imprints were covered in sand,” Dr Romilio said.

“In the Mount Morgan caves, the softer lake sediment eroded away and left the harder sandstone infills.”

After publishing these findings in February, Dr Romilio’s research gained some publicity, putting him in contact with staff from the Mount Morgan Historical Museum who sent him their own archival photos.

These photos had been on display in the Museum for years, but up until now the type of dinosaur that made the tracks depicted was unknown.

After inspection Dr Romilio was able to deduce the tracks were made by a crouched ornithopod.

“A typical dinosaur track of this kind looks like those made by birds, but these are shaped like broad-handled forks,” he said.

“This unusual posture likely made the prehistoric animal more stable allowing them to quickly cross the muddy shore of an ancient lake.”

Despite this exciting revelation, these images and the cave itself remain riddled with unknowns.

Where, when and by who the Museum’s images were taken remains a mystery but Dr Romilio isn’t about to give up the hunt for answers just yet.

“I am hoping the public become interested in this research and reach someone who knows more about these photos: when they were taken, which part of the caves they come from, and who the photographers were,” he said.

“It would be great to find more old photos out there.

“There were lots of tourists and locals that visited the Dinosaur Caves, any ‘happy snaps’ are likely to be quite important.”

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