How a 14-year-old picked up a piece of fossil almost 20 years ago and jumpstarted the beginning of dinosaur discovery in Australia

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How a 14-year-old picked up a piece of fossil almost 20 years ago and jumpstarted the beginning of dinosaur discovery in Australia
Dr. Scott Hocknull and Robyn Mackenzie pose with a 3D reconstruction and the humerus bone of "Cooper," a new species of dinosaur discovered in Queensland and recognized as the largest ever found in Australia.Eromanga Natural History Museum/Handout via REUTERS
  • One of the 15 largest dinosaurs in the world was discovered in Australia.
  • The discovery comes less than 20 years since the country first began finding dinosaur fossils.
  • Australia was believed to not have any before a 14-year-old found a piece in 2004.

Less than 20 years before "the southern titan" became the largest dinosaur discovered in Australia, a 14-year-old boy picked up a piece of fossil that would begin the hunt for the extinct creatures on the continent.

Robyn Mackenzie, Director of the Eromanga Natural History Museum, which houses the dinosaur, told Insider the discoveries began after her son, Sandy, found an unusual rock on the family property in the outback of Queensland.

"And as it turned out, this was the very ... beginning of the discoveries of dinosaurs in a really large part of outback Australia, where previously they'd never been discovered before and it wasn't even a belief that they would have been preserved in that area because of weather," Mackenzie said.

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Not long after that discovery, a team dug up the skeleton of what would be the Australotitan cooperensis, or "southern titan," in 2007. It would take another 14 years to officially identify and describe the dinosaur to find it was among the top 15 largest in the world.

Mackenzie told Insider her team is currently describing another dinosaur that could possibly be larger than the super titan.

Australia, unlike China or North America, wasn't a great home for dinosaurs

Bri Bollmann, host of the NeoJurassic podcast, told Insider that during the dinosaur era a great deal of the landmass that is now Australia was underwater, making it difficult for dinosaurs to live and have their fossils preserved there.

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"There wasn't really a lot of available landmass for dinosaurs to be living on for much of their time on earth," Bollmann said.

How a 14-year-old picked up a piece of fossil almost 20 years ago and jumpstarted the beginning of dinosaur discovery in Australia
A rendering of the Australotitan cooperensis dinosaur discovered in Australia.Courtesy of the Eromanga Natural History Museum

It's not that dinosaurs didn't live in Australia, but simply that much of the landmass was underwater and areas that would have been prime real estate for finding fossils have "been brutally eroded down to nothing," Bollmann said.

"They're definitely out there, but it's certainly more of a challenge than say North America or China, for instance, where fossils are just shooting out of the ground left and right," Bollmann said.

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That reality made people very pessimistic at the idea of finding fossils on the continent. Mackenzie said she didn't believe there were any until American paleontologist Paul Sereno visited Australia in search of fossils in 1998.

Sereno, a professor at the University of Chicago who has discovered several new dinosaur species in countries from Morocco to Argentina, left the continent empty-handed.

"[Sereno and his team] left with the belief that it was possible. There was enough geological evidence to sort of show fossilized evidence, not dinosaurs necessarily, but plants and other kinds of small things," Mackenzie said.

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Mackenzie never imagined that her family would be on this journey

Mackenzie and her family were sheep and cattle graziers. While her husband in particular was fascinated with dinosaurs, they never imagined ever doing any work in paleontology.

"Our family was around all this when [Sereno] came and so obviously got inspired by all that," she said. "[We] still had no idea what it was going to look like since they didn't find any dinosaur fossils at that point. We were feeling very confident. We knew it was very possible but we just really didn't know too much about it."

But after her son discovered the bone on their property a few years after Sereno left Australia, they realized there could be more and began learning about dinosaurs and digging. Finding one fossil led to finding many, until eventually Mackenzie and her team found the largest in the country.

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"It's such an unexpected thing and I guess not in my wildest dreams would I have ever thought previous to the day that that first piece of bone was found that I would be doing what I'm doing today," she said. "It's quite extraordinary when you think back on that fist-size piece of bone that our son found in 2004, which he easily could have just left on the ground and kept going. But he picked it up and that marked a change in the history of our paleontology, a change in the history of the path our family has taken."

By understanding how and where they lived, we could understand more about how dinosaurs may have gone extinct

Bollmann said the Australian discoveries could give greater insight into how dinosaurs lived and allow us to understand how some of the largest creatures to graze the earth went extinct, which could be a lesson for humans.

He explained that the discovery of these large dinosaurs shows how they grew and developed to adapt to their environment, but ultimately it was that very large growth that helped bring about their extinction.

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For humans, he said, we're developing at such a fast pace, with so many different ecosystems we rely on for our survival that if any were to malfunction, we may also become too big for our own survival.

"What I think is interesting about these dinosaur discoveries and what we're learning about in Cretaceous species and
Titanosaurus is again a reminder or perhaps a warning to people to realize that we are very much linked with the natural world and we think we're above it and we think we can navigate these crises better than we actually can," he said.

He said learning about how and what happened to the dinosaurs through these discoveries can help people learn "where we are in our relationship with the world today. I think that is the strongest value that we can have."

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