The landscape of western Queensland is dramatic. After a good wet season, Mitchell grass grows thickly on the vast plains. Elsewhere the land is stony and dotted with clumps of hardy spinifex. But if you’d travelled this way 95 million years ago, the scenery would have been very different. In the Mid-Cretaceous period forests of conifers, lush ferns and flowering plants covered the land, watered by rivers and streams which flowed into a huge inland sea. And it was inhabited by dinosaurs!
In August 2022, we followed the Dinosaur Trail through western Queensland, on a route from Winton to Richmond, Hughenden and Muttaburra, all locations where dinosaur fossils have been discovered. Put your Australian Dinosaur Trail Pass in your pocket and join us on a journey back in time to the land of the dinosaurs.
Dinosaur Stampede National Monument at Lark Quarry Conservation Park, Winton
Our dinosaur adventure began 110 kilometres south of Winton at the Lark Quarry Conservation Park, home of the world’s only known fossilised dinosaur stampede.
A 700 metre walk around the site took us up onto a ridge behind the Trackways conservation building, which protects more than 3,300 fossilised dinosaur footprints.
From here we could see the shapes and colours of the Winton Formation, a landscape created up to 98 million years ago and characterised by Jump-Ups; red mesas capped with hard weather-resistant stone. It was hard to believe this dry, rocky land was once covered by a dense forest of tree ferns and conifers.
Then a short walk along the pathway leading to the building took us back 95 million years, to the day the footprints in the Trackways were laid down.
Inside the building, we learned the story of the Trackways.
The dinosaurs were chicken-sized carnivorous coelurosaurs and larger plant-eating ornithopods. A huge carnivorous therapod saw the herd at the water’s edge and attacked, causing a stampede as the smaller animals tried to run away.
Thousands of footprints left in the thick mud at the edge of the lake were preserved by a unique series of events. A few days after the stampede rain fell, raising water levels in the lake and laying down a covering of sediment over the prints. Eventually they were hidden under several metres of compressed layers of sand and mud.
Fast forward 95 million years to the late 1960s, when a station manager discovered what he thought were the fossilised footprints of birds in a dry creek bed. After a local expert identified them as dinosaur prints, the site was visited by scientists from the Queensland Museum. In 1971, excavations revealed more than 3,300 dinosaur footprints made by the coelurosaurs, ornithopods and the hungry therapod.
To protect the stampede tracks from the weather, a shelter was erected over the site and, in 2002, the Trackways conservation building was constructed. Made from locally sourced rammed earth, powered by solar panels, and equipped with water tanks and composting toilets, the eco-friendly building sits comfortably in its surroundings.
From a raised platform along one wall, we could clearly see how the stampede unfolded. The therapod’s huge footprints show its determined advance towards the lake while the tiny bird-like tracks of the coelurosaurs and the larger ornithopods’ three-toed tracks are scattered in all directions, an indication of the panic that ensued as they tried to escape.
A day out at Lark Quarry was a great start to our journey on the Dinosaur Trail.
Joining Jo for Monday Walks