Exquisite Dinosaur Fossil Found In Australian Opal Field — And It’s A New Species, Too

The opalized dinosaur bone belonged to a small prehistoric reptile about the size of a dog and is the first one to be named in NSW in almost a century.

Rare opal boulder in Coober Pedy, Australia.
Dmitry Chulov / Shutterstock

The opalized dinosaur bone belonged to a small prehistoric reptile about the size of a dog and is the first one to be named in NSW in almost a century.

For opal buyer Mike Poben, a trip to Australia’s Wee Warra opal field yielded a dazzling find — in every sense of the word. While he set out to look for precious gemstones, he ended up stumbling upon a rare, exquisite fossil — one that turned out to be a true gem for paleontology, National Geographic reported.

In a bucket of opal rubble purchased from Wee Warra miners in 2013, the Adelaide-based opal buyer discovered the opalized remains of a Cretaceous-era dinosaur. The splendid fossil — a lower jaw, complete with intact teeth — is estimated to be 100-million-years-old and belonged to a species of dinosaur previously unknown to science.

“I was sorting some rough opal when, astonishingly, I saw two fan-like ridges protruding from the dirt around one oddly-shaped piece,” said Poben.

“Time froze: if these were teeth, then this was an opalized jawbone fragment.”

The opal buyer sent the specimen to the University of New England in Australia, where it was identified by paleontologist Phil Bell. As he recounts, when he first laid eyes on the opalized remains in 2014, he was so entranced that “my jaw dropped.”

“I had to try hard to contain my excitement, it was so beautiful”.

The ancient jawbone is truly remarkable to behold. Preserved in opal, the fossil shimmers in stunning hues of green and blue. Its unique beauty is rendered all the more significant given that it led to the discovery of a new and intriguing dinosaur species.

Dubbed Weewarrasaurus pobeni, the new species was an ornithopod — a bipedal plant-eating dinosaur that was about the size of a Labrador retriever and had both a duckbill and grazing teeth.

These herbivores were named for their three-toed feet — ornithopod literally means “bird feet” — and lived during the Cretaceous, with the 16-foot-tall Parasaurolophus and the shorter but equally long Iguanodon (32 feet) being the most imposing of their kind.

The name of the newfound ornithopod — Weewarrasaurus pobeni — honors both Poben and the Wee Warra opal field where the remains were unearthed. Located near the quaint town of Lightning Ridge in New South Wales, this area is a fossil hotspot, notes Science Alert.

“Lightning Ridge is the only place in the world where dinosaur bones routinely turn to opal,” explains the University of New England.

This is because the sandstone at Lightning Ridge — which once was a prehistoric floodplain — has rich amounts of silica. Over the ages, the mineral seeped through cracks and hollow pockets within the long-buried bones and hardened into opal.

The stunning Weewarrasaurus pobeni fossil is currently housed at the Australian Opal Centre in Lightning Ridge, along with other captivating specimens in its opalized fossil collection. This species is the first one to be named in New South Wales in nearly 100 years.

According to paleontologist and gemmologist Jenni Brammall, who manages the Australian Opal Centre, Weewarrasaurus pobeni is “a supremely rare and unlikely discovery.”

“This incredible little object is both the 100 million-year-old jaw of a new dinosaur species and a precious gemstone.”

The opalized dinosaur fossil, along with the new ornithopod species and its discovery, are described in a paper published yesterday in the journal PeerJ.