Australia has always been home to some weird looking creatures. The kangaroo, duck-billed platypus, koala and echidna come to mind. Now to what should be no surprise, one of the strangest dinosaurs has also been discovered Down Under.
Called the Victorian elaphrosaur, this member of the theropod family roamed Australia around 110 million years ago. Researchers found the fossil in 2015 during an annual dig near Cape Otway in Victoria at a site dubbed Eric the Red West site. At five centimeters long, the bone was later identified as a vertebra at the Melbourne Museum. It was initially believed to be from a flying reptile called a pterosaur.
“We soon realized that the neck bone we were studying was from a theropod: a meat-eating dinosaur, related to Tyrannosaurus rex, Velociraptor and modern birds,” says Swineburne University paleontologist Dr. Stephen Poropat.
“The only catch – this ‘meat-eating dinosaur’ probably didn’t eat meat!”
While no Victorian elaphrosaur skulls have yet been found, from the few that are known to exist, paleontologists believe that the young dinos had teeth, which were lost and replaced by a beak as they get older.
“As dinosaurs go, they were rather bizarre,” says Poropat. “The few known skulls of elaphrosaurs show that the youngsters had teeth, but that the adults lost their teeth and replaced them with a horny beak. We don’t know if this is true for the Victorian elaphrosaur yet — but we might find out if we ever discover a skull.”
Most of the Victorian elaphrosaur’s known relatives — like Elaphrosaurus from Tanzania, and Limusaurus from China — lived near the end of the Jurassic Period, around 160–145 million years ago. By contrast, the new Victorian elaphrosaur dates to almost 40 million years later, from the Early Cretaceous Period. At around two meters long, it was also rather small for an elaphrosaur.
Paleontologists writing in Gondwana Research say it is the first evidence of an elaphrosaur reported in Australia and only the second from the Cretaceous period worldwide.
The dinosaur graveyard at the Eric the Red West site awaits further exploration. Proposed digs this year have been postponed twice because of the bushfire season and the COVID-19 pandemic.