When sisters Cassandra Prince and Cynthia Nicholls first pulled a rock-like object from the ground of their outback cattle property, they had no clue it was a 100-million-year-old fossil.
The pair, along with their cousin Sally, are the trio of fossil hunters behind the discovery of Australia’s first complete plesiosaur fossil with head and body intact.
“We actually dug that site last year but we didn’t go down deep enough. I had a really strong feeling to dig it again this year,” Ms Prince said.
“What has really amazed us is the reaction … so many people wanted to know what was going on,” Ms Nicholls said.
Known as the ‘Rock Chicks,’ they’ve been fossicking for ancient specimens in north-west Queensland since they were children, covering “hundreds and hundreds” of kilometres in their searches.
But it’s in the winter months, when temperatures can fall below zero at their property near McKinlay, when the hard work really begins.
“When we go out in buggies, we’re all rugged up and our hands freeze to the steering wheel and our faces freeze so much we can’t even speak,” Ms Prince said.
The sisters have developed their own “little secrets” to read the landscape, looking for specific trees, bushes and fragments of bone exposed in rock.
“You just have to keep your eyes wide open,” Ms Nicholls said.
“We really love finding them [fossils] but sometimes we do not have a clue what we have actually found.”
The towns on the ‘dinosaur trail’
Not far from the Rock Chicks’ fossicking grounds lies a 735-kilometre stretch of country known as the Australian Dinosaur Trail.
Encompassing the towns of Hughenden, Richmond and Winton, researchers say this region was teeming with fish, turtles and large marine reptiles during the Cretaceous period, 145-66 million years ago.
“Every day, I would say a new discovery would be made by a property owner all around outback Queensland,” said Samantha Rigby, laboratory coordinator at Winton’s Australian Age of Dinosaurs museum.
The landscape was covered by the inland Eromanga Sea, which reached from the tip of Cape York and extended to parts of northern New South Wales.
“We get tiny little teeth, we get teeth from crocodiles and plesiosaurs, we get pine cones that are really little and crabs and crayfish,” Ms Rigby said.
“Then you go all the way up to the giant theropods that are 20 metres long.”
But Ms Rigby said most of the significant finds were made “completely by accident”.
“They’re normal people that are just stumbling across some fossils or some weird looking rocks and calling up someone to have a look,” she said.
“When the property owners are out mustering their sheep and cattle, spraying for weeds … that’s how we find some stuff.”
A ‘world-class’ hunting ground
Founder of Richmond’s Kronosauraus Korner fossil museum Rob Ivers said recent discoveries, like the McKinlay plesiosaur, were making a difference to outback towns.
“The amount of interest in dinosaurs and fossils at the moment is extraordinary,” Mr Ivers said.
Attracting about 17,000 visitors annually, the museum is home to the Richmond Pliosaur, a four-metre-long aquatic reptile regarded as one of the finest specimens in the world.
“The quality of the fossils coming out of here is absolutely world class. Some of these fish look like they died yesterday … everything is perfectly articulated,” he said.
Mr Ivers said the museum had made 34 significant discoveries in the past 12 months, with specimens up to six metres in size.
“You could honestly stumble across something any day at any time. It’s very exciting to sort of think how much is still out there,” he said.
More discoveries in the making
After making headlines around the world, Cassandra and Cynthia are planning to further investigate several sites on their property.
But it’s not just the thrill of a new discovery that keeps the family trio digging. They say the enjoyment and freedom brings them back season after season.
“We all support each other. We have a very, very close, loving group. It’s an absolute pleasure to go out with these two girls,” Ms Nicholls said.
And after discovering the intact plesiosaur, their enthusiasm has never been greater.
“We don’t know if we could ever top it. We’re going to try next year,” Ms Prince said.