Australian Dinosaur Story
What are the main dinosaur groups?
Scientists divide dinosaurs into two main groups, based upon their pelvis
The Ornithischians or 'bird-hipped' dinosaurs (e.g.
|A Ornithischian dinosaur foot.
These dinosaurs had pelvis structures similar to modern day birds. They
only ate plants (they were all herbivores) and had sharp saw-like teeth
for slashing plant leaves and stems. Some walked about on their two
hind legs only, others walked on all four. Footprints made by these
dinosaurs are bird-like in appearance, with spread out toes.
- The Saurischians, or 'lizard-hipped' dinosaurs.
This group includes all of the dinosaurs that were carnivores. However
some were herbivores.
Two main types of Saurischians include the Theropods and the Sauropods.
|A Theropod with saw-like teeth.
- Theropods walked on their hind legs. Their footprints
show longer toes than the Ornithopods, with the toes less spread.
Some scientists believe that they were clever hunters.
- Sauropods were large plant-eating dinosaurs. A
small one would have been the size of a present day elephant, and
the large ones were amongst the biggest animals the Earth has known.
They moved around slowly on all four legs, and seem to have travelled
with the adults on the outside of the group to protect the young.
Their long necks were adapted to reaching the high vegetation of the
Cretaceous forest. Sauropod teeth were peg-like and weak, showing
that they swallowed the leaves and stems whole and without much chewing
and grinding. Footprints made by Sauropods are large, rounded (rear
feet) and U-shaped (front feet). (e.g. the Rhoetosaurus).
|A Sauropod with peg-like teeth.
How did dinosaurs become fossils?
To make a dinosaur fossil, parts of or a whole skeleton had to be buried
in mud or other sediment before it was able to decay or break down. This
may have happened when bodies were washed into a lake by a flood, or when
a dinosaur died in the mud of a water hole, and the skeleton was buried.
After what may be millions of years of continued burial by sediment, the
sediment hardens into rock and the bones turn into fossils. (See the Australian
dinosaur fossil locations interactive).
Did most dinosaurs become preserved as fossils?
No, not at all. Dinosaur fossils are very rare, especially in Australia.
This is because dinosaurs were 'terrestrial' animals (they lived on land),
and when they died, they would not often be buried in sediment. Marine
animals are much more likely to be buried and become fossils.
Were entire dinosaurs preserved as fossils?
|Minmi dinosaur skeleton fossil.
While it is uncommon, several excellent examples have been discovered
overseas and are displayed in some of the world's top museums. In Australia,
however, these finds are rare due largely to unsuitable environmental
Many of the dinosaur discoveries are of single bones, or parts of skeletons
with many pieces missing. Occasionally imprints of dinosaur skin and other
soft tissues are found along with harder body parts such as bone. There
are two main types of fossils that scientists call 'body fossils' and
Body fossils are what most people think of as fossils; any part of the
actual plant or animal such as leaves, teeth or bones.
Trace fossils are fossils that don't actually include parts of the body
but give us clues as to how the animal lived. Examples include footprints,
where dinosaurs walked over soft mud, and the tracks were covered over
and preserved. Some dinosaurs are known only from their footprints. Other
trace fossils include stomach stones ('gastroliths'). Dinosaurs that were
herbivores swallowed pebbles to help them digest coarse plant matter,
and these are sometimes found. Occasionally nests, eggs, and droppings
Although scientists now have very advanced techniques they use to help
predict where fossils may be found, many fossils are destroyed by surface
weathering before they are discovered. Other fossils are extremely fragmented
by the time scientists discover them. Two of Australia's best dinosaur
fossil areas in Victoria and Queensland often produce fossils that are
made up of bone fragments scattered throughout a large area of sedimentary
How do scientists identify dinosaurs from pieces of bone or part skeletons?
Fossil pieces are painstakingly protected and removed from the rock and
then taken back to the laboratory for preservation and study. Scientists
compare new fossil finds in detail with other dinosaur fossils that have
been found around the world. This helps them to classify dinosaurs into
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