Local scientist digs his teeth into 100-year-old fossil mystery

20 September 2019

Museum of Tropical Queensland palaeontologist, Dr Espen Knutsen has helped piece together the answer to a 100-year-old fossil puzzle thanks to modern technology.


The puzzle began in 1914 when a large curved tooth was found by a farmer near Hughenden, west of Townsville, seemingly preserved in a rock dating back to the Cretaceous period of dinosaurs – 110 million years ago.


At the time, the tooth showed resemblance to a dicynodont – a herbivorous animal that went extinct after the Triassic period, almost 100 million years before the Cretaceous period began.


The study led by Dr Knutsen, Senior Curator of Palaeontology for Museum of Tropical Queensland and James Cook University said some palaeontologists believed the tooth could be evidence of a population of dicynodonts that survived in Queensland long after they went extinct elsewhere in the world.


“We wanted to take a closer look at the specimen using state of the art analytical techniques to uncover the truth about the tooth,” Dr Knutsen said.


“By searching through 100-year-old museum archives, our research uncovered another fossil was found by the same farmer, only months prior in the same gully, metres away from the dicynodont fragments.


“However, this fossil was from the left upper jaw of a diprotodontid, the largest known marsupial to have ever lived.


“Letters from the farmer to Queensland Museum state that he believed the two fossils belonged to the same individual. Through advanced scanning techniques at the Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne and geochemical analyses we were able to test this theory.”


The results revealed the fossils did not belong to a dicynodont, but instead a diprotodontid; a wombat-like animal the size of a hippo, which lived in Australia around 2.5 million years ago.


This scanning technology was able to reveal details down to the location of tooth enamel – which was another key factor confirming the mysterious tooth was from the diprotodontid, not an extinction-surviving dicynodont.


Minister for Science and Minister for the Arts Leeanne Enoch said Queensland science is world class and Queensland Museum researchers continue to lead the way in making scientific discoveries.

“This important work supports the Palaszczuk Government’s vision to establish our state as a place that recognises, supports, advocates and engages in science and the jobs it underpins,” Minister Enoch said.

Queensland Museum Network CEO Dr Jim Thompson said it’s not every day you get to solve a 100-year-old puzzle.


“The beauty of research is all about discovering and uncovering fascinating facts of the world around us,” Dr Thompson said.


“Our team of scientists and researchers at Queensland Museum Network are leaders in their fields of science and this is one example of the incredible work that goes on behind the scenes.”


The fossilized bone with the tooth fragment, CT (computed tomography) scan and Australian Synchrotron x-ray microtomography showing the internal structures of the specimen are currently on display as part of the exhibition Natural Curiosity: Discovering the secrets of Queensland’s greatest collections.


The paper has been published in Gondwana Research here.


Museum of Tropical Queensland is open daily from 9.30am – 5pm and entry to Natural Curiosity is included with admission.


Media Contacts:

Andrea Hughes                       

07 4726 0604 or 0497 347 117