Geologist Ross Staines examining dinosaur footprints in the Fireclay Caverns in the 1950s. (Supplied: Anthony Romilio)
A mystery surrounding dinosaur footprints on the ceiling of a cave in central Queensland has been solved after more than half a century.
- Dinosaur footprints were discovered on the roof of a Mount Morgan goldmine in 1952
- The prints were thought to have been made by a dinosaur walking on four feet
- Using 60-year-old photographs given to him by chance, Anthony Romilio has determined the prints are from two different bipedal dinosaurs
It follows a chance meeting at a fruit market between a palaeontologist and a geologist’s daughter.
University of Queensland palaeontologist, Anthony Romilio, was shown photos of footprints in the Fireclay Caverns at Mount Morgan, near Rockhampton.
The photographs were taken by late geologist, Ross Staines, and helped with his discovery of how dinosaurs walked and which species once inhabited the region.
“The tracks lining the cave ceiling were not made by dinosaurs hanging upside down,” Dr Romilio said.
“Instead the dinosaurs walked on the lake sediment and these imprints were covered in sand.
“In the Mount Morgan caves, the softer lake sediment eroded away and left the harder sandstone in-fills.”
Gold-mining town strikes Jurassic footprints
The manmade Fireclay Caverns were created during clay excavations between 1906 and 1927 to supply the local brick works.
Decades later a gold mine was established on the site and in 1952 dinosaur footprints, thought to be 195 million years old, were discovered embedded in the sandstone roof.
The view of Mount Morgan and the old gold mine where the Fireclay Caverns are located. (ABC News: Kathleen Calderwood)
Dr Romilio said there were questions among the research community as to what type of dinosaurs were living in the area to leave such prints.
He said it was difficult to learn more about the footprints as the caverns were challenging to access and were closed off in 2011.
Dinosaur footprints in the Fireclay Caverns at Mount Morgan, taken by the late geologist Ross Staines in the 1950s. (Supplied: Anthony Romilio)
“There had been some unusual interpretations of what these tracks might mean,” Dr Romilio said.
“One of the interpretations was it was made by a four-legged … meat-eating dinosaur — say a T-rex walking on four legs — and we thought it was a little bit odd.”
Researchers wanted to determine if this dinosaur did move using its feet and arms, but found accessing research material difficult.
‘His jaw dropped to the floor’
It was Dr Romilio’s chance encounter with a Brisbane-based woman that helped solve the Jurassic puzzle.
He was working at a Brisbane fruit and vegetable market to help pay for his doctoral studies when he had a serendipitous conversation with a customer.
Anthony Romilio made a dinosaur discovery through a chance meeting with a geologist’s daughter. (Supplied: Damien Kelly)
Roslyn Dick, the daughter of the late 1950s geologist Ross Staines, regularly shopped at the market.
“Her dad actually wrote the original discovery of these tracks, and their family had kept archival material,” Dr Romilio said.
“This was an opportunity to access archival photos, maps, and even a dinosaur footprint [cast] that they’ve got, and put the signs together to find out what these dinosaurs were doing.”
Ms Dick said their meeting was quite opportunistic.
“We regularly go to one stall and happen to get chatting to this guy … who says he’s doing his PhD,” she said.
“We said ‘What’s your PhD in?’ and he said ‘dinosaurs’, and we went, ‘Oh, well, my dad was a bit interested in them in the ’50s.
“When I mentioned his name his eyes lit up.”
Ms Dick and her two sisters had kept their father’s photos of the dinosaur footprints inside the Fireclay Caverns.
The dinosaur footprint mould is owned by Roslyn Dick and her sisters. (Supplied: Anthony Romilio)
“Besides his published account, he had high-resolution photographs and detailed notebooks, and my sisters and I had kept it all,” she said.
“He [Dr Romilio] realised Dad had these photographs and a dinosaur footprint and he became very interested.
“He came around to our place and I opened the box with the photos and his jaw just about dropped to the floor … it seemed like he felt like a kid at Christmas.
“It was like: ‘Oh my goodness, this could change the way we think about what went on at this time’.”
Putting decades-old theory to the test
Ms Dick said the photos she and her sisters had kept were much clearer than those that were available to researchers.
“Because of the clarity of the photo Anthony indicated that it meant that he could better identify what dinosaurs were involved,” she said.
Dr Romilio said the wealth and the condition of “dinosaur information” archived by Ms Dick and her sisters was amazing.
“In combination with our current understanding of dinosaurs, it told a pretty clear-cut story.”
The research team concluded all five dinosaur tracks were foot impressions and none were dinosaur handprints.
Dr Romilio said the splayed toes and moderately long middle digit of the footprints resembled two-legged herbivorous dinosaur tracks.
“Rather than one dinosaur walking on four legs, it seems as though we got two dinosaurs for the price of one — both plant-eaters that walked bipedally along the shore of an ancient lake,” he said.
Dr Romilio’s research has been published in Historical Biology.
Call for dinosaur prints to be heritage listed
Dr Romilio said Mount Morgan had the greatest diversity of any dinosaur fossil fauna in the eastern half of Australia and he would like to see it heritage listed.
The main entrance of the old Mount Morgan gold mine and Fireclay Caverns where dinosaur prints were discovered in the 1950s. (ABC Capricornia: Rachel McGhee)
However the site of the caverns has been closed for almost a decade after the Department of Natural Resources and Mines deemed it unsafe following a series of rockfalls.
“This is a really important site for Australia,” Dr Romilio said.
“Some of the people who I research with in China and South Korea, it’s really quite amazing that for their communities, their governments, they have heritage listings for these sites that become embodied with tourism.
“It would be really interesting if that could happen for Mount Morgan as well.”