Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

When Will Australia Get Its First Real Mounted Dinosaur?

By John Long

Australian museums don’t display any dinosaurs mounted from real bones into a life-like position.

While Australia’s state museums have a great reputation for the quality of their displays, there’s still one big thing missing from all our galleries of past life: a dinosaur skeleton. Not a replica, but a real one. Not one museum in Australia has ever mounted a real dinosaur skeleton for public display. Instead we mount replicas that have been restored and modified to show what the creature might have looked like.

Real dinosaur skeletons are a true thing of awe and amazement to behold. The Tyrannosaurus at the American Museum of Natural History in New York inspired the young Steven Jay Gould to want to become a palaeontologist.

In 2011 I worked as part of team that created a new dinosaur gallery for the Los Angeles County Museum (LACM) in California. We mounted some 25 dinosaur skeletons into life-like poses, 23 of them largely composed of real skeletons. The gallery cost around US$14 million, and much of that went on preparation of the fossils and creating armatures to mount the bones so they could be easily removed for study or conservation – and to withstand the earthquakes that LA is famous for.

In Australia we have one articulated real dinosaur skeleton on display, Kunbarrasaurus (based on a specimen erroneously called Minmi) at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane. This small animal measuring ~3 metres is displayed as it was found after preparation.

But we lack any dinosaur mounted from real bones into a life-like position, as is routinely found in nearly every North American natural history museum. Some would argue we lack the specimens or resources to do that kind of thing here, but it’s not true. We lack the kind of commitment and resource allocation to do it from our state government leaders.

Several Australian museums have mounted replica skeletons of Muttaburrasaurus, an 8-metre plant-eating ornithopod from Queensland. While the bones have been prepped up and cast, many like the skull are restored to estimate their life-like shape. To mount an authentic posture for such a specimen would need further reinforcement of the original bones, plus a carefully designed armature to support the bones.

Other possible candidates for a real mounted dinosaur would currently have to be made from less than 50% of the skeleton augmented with replica bones to complete the mount. The large sauropod Wintonotitan is known from near-complete front limbs, shoulder girdle, back and tail vertebrae and part of the hip. Much new material of this giant and its cousin Diamantinasaurus is currently being prepared. Perhaps soon one will be a suitable candidate for the full mounted treatment.

In Australia we spend a fraction of what any mid-sized museum in the USA would spend on such a gallery. An average large new exhibition gallery in an Australian state museum might costs A$2–5 million, not US$12–20 million like the LACM’s three new galleries in its recent redevelopment. The LACM did all this while working from an annual operating budget far less than the two biggest Australian state museums, albeit with some good old US philanthropy thrown in.

I hope one day we will get to see a real dinosaur mounted in an Australian museum. Which will be the first?

Whichever it is, it will certainly reap the big benefits of increased attendance and shop sales, as the LACM did. Just 2 years after opening the new fossil mammal and dinosaur galleries, it doubled its attendances, raised ticket prices, shop sales were up by 80% more, and it greatly improved its bottom line. Staffing increased and salaries increased. Some say it was a dinosaur-led economic recovery.

John Long is Strategic Professor in Palaeontology at Flinders University, and current President of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.