On this page...
An outline of what you will see in each section of Dinosaurs and highlights some of the key components.
Dinosaurs is divided into four main sections:
- Dinosaur World
- Dinosaur Life
- Discovering Dinosaurs
- Surviving Dinosaurs
The threshold area features two spectacular dinosaur specimens in a dynamic pose.
These specimens are both from Niger and are known to have interacted.
Jobaria was a sauropod. This group of dinosaurs are typically known for their large size and long necks. However, Jobaria and its closest relatives differed from other sauropods because they had relatively short necks and spoon-shaped teeth. It is one of the few sauropods known from an almost complete fossil skeleton.
Afrovenator was a large predator and may have hunted in packs. The strong, lightweight skeleton and relatively short arms of Afrovenator are typical of large theropods and suggest this species was a hunter that relied on speed and power for attack.
Section 1: Dinosaur World
... barely recognisable, dominated by reptiles, changing over millions of years. How did dinosaurs fit in?
- What is a dinosaur?
- Where and when dinosaurs lived
- Plate tectonics and the existence of supercontinents
- What other animals lived at the same time as the dinosaurs?
- Gondwana: the southern super-continent
- Australian fossil sites and specimens
What is a dinosaur?
Dinosaurs are a group of reptiles with a set of physical features that are different from those of all other reptiles. They include extinct animals we know from fossils and the birds we see today. The word 'dinosaur' means 'terrible lizard' in Greek. It was coined in 1842 by Sir Richard Owen, an English Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Physiology.
Eoraptor was one of the first dinosaurs to appear in the fossil record and scientists agree that the first dinosaurs may also have had these features and looked something like Eoraptor. This agile two-legged dinosaur may have eaten meat, plants and insects. Its relatively small size was typical of early dinosaurs.
Meet the family
Just like a family tree shows your ancestors and present-day relatives, the evolutionary tree displayed in this section shows how dinosaurs are related to other groups of animals and to each other.
Where and when dinosaurs lived
When dinosaurs first appeared in the Middle Triassic, about 230 million years ago, they were simply another group of small reptiles in a world full of reptiles. By the end of the Triassic they dominated life on land and would for another 140 million years, till the close of the Mesozoic. Not all dinosaurs lived at the same time. Different types emerged, evolved and became extinct. One group, the birds, is still with us today.
The Mesozoic Era spanned 251 to 65 million years ago - a tiny part of the Earth's long history. This history stretches over four billion years and is known as geological time.
The large wall graphic in this section of the exhibition illustrates the changing world of the Mesozoic. Here we see, smell and feel how the landscape, vegetation and animals changed. This large wall graphic has specimens imbedded into it, peepholes to find out which dinosaurs lived in which time period and even the prevailing scent of the time.
- Late Triassic - 225 million years ago
- Middle Jurassic - 175 million years ago
- Early Cretaceous - 125 million years ago
- Late Cretaceous - 75 million years ago
Plate Tectonics and the existence of Supercontinents
The globes above the illustrations show how the continents changed position over time. This didn't only occur in the Mesozoic, but is happening right now. The Earth's crust may feel solid and stable, but it is actually a slowly moving 'jigsaw' of continental plates (that move about the same speed as your fingernails grow). These plates collide into or move away from each other, resulting in the continual creation and destruction of the crust.
What other animals lived at the same time as the dinosaurs?
Dinosaurs lived alongside a changing and diverse array of animals. Some were bizarre-looking creatures that we only know from fossils. Others were the ancestors of animals you see today. This section features many specimens that lived alongside the dinosaurs, on the land, in the air and in the water. Specimens you will see in this section include: fish, mayfly nymphs, cockroaches, dragonflies, ammonites, crabs, lobsters, turtles etc.
Pteranodon was a short-tailed pterosaur. Pterosaurs used all four limbs for flying and had relatively light bodies and hollow bones.
'Eric' the pliosaur probably lived like a modern seal, eating fish and swimming in shallow waters. 'Eric' had a small body, long neck and small head. 'Eric' was named after a Monty Python comedy sketch in which all the animals were called Eric. This important specimen was found by an opal miner in 1987.
Gondwana: the southern super-continent
At the beginning of the Mesozoic, Gondwana formed the southern part of the single continent Pangaea. When Pangaea split about 200 million years ago, Gondwana began its own isolated journey and gradual break-up into the landmasses we know today - Australia, South America, Africa, India, Madagascar, Antarctica and New Zealand.
Australian fossil sites and specimens
A highlight of this section is the reconstruction of a scene from Lightning Ridge in the Early Cretaceous. At that time, Lightning Ridge was on the edge of the Antarctic Circle. Temperatures were cool, although not as cold as the Antarctic region today, particularly in winter. Mild summers, harsh winters, long periods of darkness and remarkable animals and plants adapted to life on the edge of the polar zone.
Just as remarkable is that some of these animals and plants were preserved as rare opalised fossils. The fossils on display here are a highlight of the Australian Museum collections.
Muttaburrasaurus had an unusual skull with a bony bump on the snout. The skin over the snout may have inflated to make loud calls or could have been brightly coloured and used for display purposes. Muttaburrasaurus could have walked on two or four limbs, and probably stood on its back legs to reach food. This large plant-eater probably ate cycads, which were common at the time, and also club-mosses, ferns and podocarps. It may have lived in herds.
Section 2: Dinosaur Life
... from diet to defence, senses to sounds and pack-hunting to herding. How can we reconstruct all this from fossils?
- A life among plants
- Getting around
- Predator and prey - the Winton trackway
Dinosaur Life is the largest of the four sections and includes many full- sized specimens, models and interactive activities as well as two huge wall projections recreating the environment of the dinosaurs. Visitors are encouraged to explore the methods scientists use to uncover 'how we know what we know' about dinosaurs. There are opportunities to touch specimens, compare dinosaurs to modern animals, make the sound of a dinosaur, see like a dinosaur, stand in a dinosaur footprint and much more.
A life among plants
Plant-eating dinosaurs dominated the landscape, far outnumbering their carnivorous counterparts.
One way to learn about what dinosaurs ate is by examining their teeth and jaws and comparing them to modern animals whose diets we know. There are opportunities to see a variety of different teeth and explore some questions:
- Who had teeth for grinding?
- Who had teeth for snipping?
- Who had leaf- shaped teeth?
- Who had teeth at the back but not at the front?
- Who didn't chew their food but swallowed stones to help break up their food?
What's on the menu?
Plant fossils indicate what food was available to dinosaurs. They also show how food options changed over time. Rare fossils on display reveal specific diets in ways that plants and teeth cannot. For instance, the ankylosaur Minmi was found with seeds and leaves in its gut contents, whereas twigs, berries and tough plants were found in the stomach region of a hadrosaur.
Life in a crowd
Many plant-eating dinosaurs lived, walked (and stepped on each others toes and tails), and died together. The evidence for this can be seen in communal nesting sites, bone injuries, trackways and bone-beds. What does this mean for our understanding of dinosaur life?
Psittacosaurus probably lived in social groups and cared for young. A fossil of an adult with a crèche of 34 juveniles was found in China.
We know from research that living in herds is complex. Animals need to recognise who's who, fight for social positions and compete for mates. Success at these requires strength or size, display features like horns or antlers, or adopting certain behaviours. If we can detect any of these in dinosaur fossils, it suggests they faced similar concerns - and that we need to take another look at their spikes, horns and fancy headgear.
Chasmosaurus lived in large herds. Bone-beds containing the remains of 200-300 animals have been found.
Parasaurolophus had crests that fully developed at maturity and may have varied in size depending on the sex. It is possible that this skull was male, although this is debated. It is also likely that crests helped produce distinctive sounds. These factors suggest this species lived in social groups where communication and display were important.
Helmet or headdress?
It sounds like a fancy dress party gone wrong: horns, dome-heads, crests, frills, noise, head-butting and rivalry. But they are really about using your head and some plant-eating dinosaurs excelled at it. For years we thought dinosaurs only used their head adornments for defence against predators. However, the growing evidence from fossils and modern animal behaviour has revealed they were used for much more than that. Do you think these features were more suited for surviving an attack from a predator or the complexities of life in a herd?
Stegosaurus fossils are rare and there is no evidence yet for social behaviour. They fed on ground-level ferns, cycads and seeds. Their jaw structure suggests they probably did not chew their food. The plates of Stegosaurus were most likely embedded in the skin along their back in a double-row of alternating plates. This may have helped regulate their body temperature. This species also had bony neck armour, probably for protection from sharp cycad leaves rather than from predators.
Like all ankylosaurs, Minmi had longer back legs than front legs. This moved its centre of gravity forwards, providing extra stability when assuming a defensive posture. However, its legs were longer than other ankylosaurs so it may have moved faster. It lacked the tail-club of most ankylosaurids. There is no evidence that Minmi lived in herds. Fossilised gut contents show it ate seeds and leaves of flowering plants.
Armour or amour?
Armoured skin, body spikes, plates and clubbed tails - just try to sink your teeth into that!
Stegosaurs and ankylosaurs were built for defence. The ankylosaurs took it to the extreme, with thickened skulls, fused vertebrae and compact bodies earning them the nickname 'nature's tanks'.
Interestingly, there is no evidence that either group lived in herds so reliance on self-defence makes sense. However, nothing is quite as simple as it seems. Some of these features may also have been used for mating displays, regulating body temperatures, or to help recognise others of their species.
These are the sharp-toothed, ferocious dinosaurs of popular imagination - the ultimate predators built purely to kill. Or are they? Collectively known as theropods, they range from bus-sized to chicken-sized, and include the outlandish parrot-faced, feathered, toothless and ostrich-like.
The teeth of meat-eaters are adapted for killing and eating specific types of animals, be they insects, fish, reptiles or mammals. We can determine the likely diet of a meat-eating dinosaur by making comparisons with living animals. Look at how the teeth of these modern carnivores differ, depending on what they eat.
Getting a sense of your prey
Modern predators such as cats, owls and wolves use their excellent vision, hearing or sense of smell to detect prey. What senses do you think dinosaurs used? Lift the flaps of the Giganotosaurus to find out how dinosaurs used their senses.
Put your head in the vision-viewer and see like a theropod (top). How is it different from the way your plant-eating prey sees (bottom)?
So just how big was T. rex's brain? For its body weight, the brain size of T. rex was comparable to many modern reptiles. A cast of the brain reveals that it had enlarged olfactory lobes, the part of the brain responsible for the sense of smell. This sense must have been important to T. rex.
The ability to overpower another animal requires a combination of strength, speed, balance and weaponry. The theropods displayed in this section have the same general body plan - powerful lightweight frames, two relatively long legs, stiff counter-balancing tails and sharp claws - for this purpose. Now take a closer look. Theropods also vary in body size, arm length, skull structure and claw shape. This suggests they used different methods to overpower prey. By looking closely at these features, and comparing them to those of modern predators, we can detect what these methods may have been. Try it yourself with the claws displayed. Can you work out which were used for killing, for catching or for subduing prey?
Velociraptor was a small and agile meat-eater. One fossil specimen from Mongolia preserves it locked in death with its prey Protoceratops. There is no evidence that it hunted in packs, although some of its close relatives did. Velociraptor had many bird-like characteristics, including long arms, feathers and a wishbone. It had a specialised claw on the second toe that it held off the ground when walking. This claw may have been used to pierce or hold on to prey.
What's for dinner?
Compare the amount of food required by a herbivore and a carnivore and remember
what goes in must come out ... so don't miss the poo pile!
Our picture of the lone predator is changing. Recent fossil discoveries suggest some lived in co-operative packs, raised their young and were probably quite social. This helps shatter the 'built purely to kill' stereotype, but creates a whole new set of questions. Were groups family-based, male- or female-dominated, or something else? Did they hunt in packs or compete for social positions and mates? Fossils, although intriguing, cannot provide clear answers. Our only insights come from living predators - which simply tell us that theropods could have interacted in any number of ways.
Giganotosaurus displaced Tyrannosaurus rex as the largest meat-eating dinosaur when its discovery was announced in 1995. Giganotosaurus possibly lived in family groups, as at least four of these dinosaurs of varying ages were found in a fossil bone-bed in Argentina.
The odd ones out
Just when you thought you could tell a meat-eater by its sharp teeth! The theropods described here have unusual features that make it difficult to determine what they ate. They include the beaked and toothless oviraptorosaurs, the ostrich-like filter-feeding ornithomimosaurs and the enigmatic therizinosaurs.
Oviraptorosaurs like Ingenia were meat-eaters with no teeth. They had relatively large heads with short, deep beaks and jaw muscles powerful enough to crush bones. They may also have eaten plants, molluscs and eggs.
Footprints and trackways
Imagining dinosaurs in motion is to bring them truly to life. Mere fossils now become lumbering, bulky, fleet-footed, agile, four-legged, two-legged or even bird-like. How is this transformation possible? What techniques do we use to put muscles on bones and movement into skeletons? Take a walk through the evidence...
- Footprint of a large theropod
- Footprint of a small ornithopod
Skeletons and muscles
Look at living animals and you see how skeletons, and the muscles that power them, reveal varying ways of getting around. Fast animals have long limbs, light-weight skeletons and streamlined bodies. Slow animals tend to have weight-bearing legs and bulky bodies. We can find out whether a dinosaur was fast, lumbering or bird-like by comparing its fossil bones to living animals. We can also reconstruct its approximate weight, bone strength and structure and use these to determine its movement and speed capabilities.
Look at the three footprints on the floor. Could you outrun the meat-eating dinosaur that made this trackway?
Lifecycles - from go to woe
Dinosaur life started out in a hard-shelled egg. These came in a variety of shapes and sizes depending on the species, but all had shells with internal structures more similar to modern bird eggs than to those of any living reptile. Most were laid in nests of mud or hollows scooped in sand, although some sauropods appeared to lay their eggs in simple lines. Large nesting colonies have also been found, suggesting breeding was social for some species - just like many birds today.
Check out the size of this egg!
Aepyornis maximus egg. This extinct bird laid some of the largest eggs of any known animal. This egg is close to the maximum size for an egg.
Nature or nurture?
It appears that dinosaurs cared for their eggs and hatchlings in different ways, just like living animals. Some species probably left the young to fend for themselves while others used their bodies to incubate or protect their eggs. Many nested in rookeries and a few even practised communal creching with hatchlings - typical bird behaviours. Imagine a mother dinosaur regurgitating food for her young!
Maiasaura nest with eggs and hatchlings Maiasaura, whose name means 'good mother lizard', has one of the most complete records regarding eggs, embryos, nests and juveniles of any dinosaur. Evidence shows they used communal nesting grounds and tended their newly hatched young. The young also grew quickly, reaching about three metres in length after one year.
Many dinosaurs, particularly large theropods, hadrosaurs and sauropods, probably grew very quickly during the early years of life and slowed as they reached adulthood. However, it appears they had unique growth patterns that were faster than living reptiles but slower than most mammals or birds...Compare yourself to the size of a dinosaur at birth, 5 years and fully grown, featured on the wall graphic.
Dead as a dinosaur!
In living animals, life span depends mainly on size and metabolism. For instance, reptiles with slow metabolisms tend to have longer life spans than warm-blooded birds and mammals of the same size. As evidence suggests that many dinosaurs had metabolisms more like birds, they probably did not have the same relative life spans as large reptiles. It is possible that sauropods reached 50-100 years, large theropods a bit less and smaller dinosaurs could live to about 10 or 20.
Predator and prey - the Winton trackway
We can never witness the awesome reality of a dinosaur stalking and attacking its prey. However, one fossil trackway near Winton in Queensland gives us the rare opportunity to reconstruct such a moment - to 'relive' the movement, reactions, fear and panic.
In the early 1960s a local grazier uncovered some odd-shaped footprints preserved in rock. Later excavations revealed that these footprints - over 3000 of them - were left by dinosaurs on the shore of a lake about 95 million years ago.
Look carefully at the fossil on display and decide:
- How many different kinds of prints can you see?
- Did the prey run towards or away from the predator?
- What do you think happened here?
Now watch the projection and see the story come to life.
Section 3: Discovering Dinosaurs
... from the initial discovery, to preparation, dating and putting flesh on the bones. How do science, art and chance recreate the past?
- What are fossils and where are they found?
- How do fossils form?
- How are fossils found?
- How are fossils excavated and dated?
- Dinosaur reconstruction
What are fossils and where are they found?
The word 'fossil' comes from the Latin word fossus, which means 'dug up'. This refers to the fact that fossils are the remains of past life preserved in rock, soil or amber. Generally, the remains were once the hard parts of an organism, such as bones and shell although, under exceptional circumstances, soft tissues have also fossilised. There are different types of fossils because remains can be preserved in a variety of ways. In this section you will see examples of trace fossils, mineralised fossils, impression fossils and fossils with organic material preserved.
Replacement of organic material in bone with minerals - dinosaur femur (leg bone).
How do fossils form?
For a plant or animal to become a fossil, a series of events must occur. The remains have to be buried before they completely decompose or are eaten. The conditions of burial must then be suitable for the remains to leave an impression or have their organic material replaced by minerals. Finally, the fossils must survive millions of years of pressure, uplift and erosion if they are to come back to the surface.
How are fossils found?
Fossils are mostly found where sedimentary rocks of the right age - which for dinosaurs is the Mesozoic - are exposed. The best places are river valleys, cliffs and hillsides, and human-made exposures such as quarries and road cuttings.
Background research enables scientists to locate and excavate suitable sedimentary rocks. Chance also plays a role as many fossils are found accidentally by bushwalkers, construction workers, miners and farmers.
Specimens of different rock types are displayed along with a jacketed fossil.
How are fossils excavated and dated?
Most of the time, fossils are only partially uncovered on site. They are removed individually or in blocks and often protected by plaster jackets before being taken back to a laboratory.
Fieldwork also includes preserving the context of the fossils through mapping, photographing, recording and collecting rock samples. This helps determine how and when the remains were buried, and what other animals and plants lived at the same time.
Humerus (upper forelimb) of a 75-million-year-old ceratopsian, Centrosaurus apertus, still in its plaster jacket. The fossil was excavated in Canada and covered in plaster to protect it during transport to the Australian Museum.
Most of what we know about dinosaurs comes from work done in the lab. It is here that the mass of information held in fossils is 'read' - a fascinating yet, at times, frustrating job that involves science and detective work and the acceptance that there are things we may never know.
This area is a replica of a working palaeontology lab where you can see a fossil slab, the tools used to excavate, the stages of excavation, microscope, computer interactives where you will have the opportunity to design your own dinosaur, reference books and more. A slide show traces the journey of our fossil slabs from the Canadian site where they were found, back to Australia.
Nigersaurus is an important discovery as it provides exciting new evidence that diplodocoids (the sauropod group it belongs to) were not completely extinct by the Late Jurassic, but survived into the Cretaceous period on southern continents like Africa. The jaws are wider than the actual skull and packed with nearly 1000 tiny teeth.
Also in this area you will find:
- a children's fossil dig - unearth and try to identify which fossils you've found
- dress-ups - try on the tail and headdress of a dinosaur
- books - find out more facts about dinosaurs
- a large wooden puzzle - put together the pieces and make a Stegosaurus.
Section 4: Surviving Dinosaurs
... icons of failure or modern success stories? What really happened 65 million years ago?
- -Living dinosaurs
- -End of an era - mass extinction
In this section we explore the links between birds and dinosaurs.
The idea that birds evolved from dinosaurs is not new. It was first suggested in the 1860s after the famous fossil discovery of the primitive bird Archaeopteryx. Gradually falling from favour, the theory was resurrected by a series of new discoveries including spectacular feathered dinosaurs found in the 1990s. In the same way that we evolved from a mammal ancestor and are mammals, birds evolved from a dinosaur ancestor and are dinosaurs.
Discovered in the 1860s, Archaeopteryx was the first fossil evidence linking birds to dinosaurs. It had feathers like modern birds and a skeleton with features like a small non-avian dinosaur. Although it is the earliest and most primitive bird known to date, it is not considered the common ancestor of all birds.
The discovery of Sinosauropteryx prima in 1996 was one of the most important fossil finds of the century. It was the first non-avian dinosaur found with feather-like structures, providing further evidence for the link between dinosaurs and birds. Its name means 'first Chinese lizard wing'.
Modern birds, early birds and coelurosaur dinosaurs share many physical features:
- hollow and thin-walled bones
- modified shoulder and forelimb enabling hands to fold against the lower arm
- modified wrist (semilunate carpal)
Check out the amazing Bambiraptor.
End of an era - mass extinction
The Mesozoic came to an abrupt end 65 million years ago in a dramatic extinction event. An estimated 70 per cent of plant and animal species perished.
Many theories have been suggested for its cause. The few that are accepted as scientifically valid are placed into two opposing groups. The 'catastrophists' believe the mass extinction happened suddenly due to a meteorite impact. The 'gradualists' consider it was prolonged and caused by climate change or volcanic activity, with the meteorite only providing the final blow.
Examine the evidence provided and decide what you think happened 65 million years ago.
- Extinction Film
- Impact layer
This rock sample from New Zealand shows the layer formed during the end-Mesozoic extinction event. Over 200 extinction layer sites around the world have produced elevated levels of the metal iridium. Iridium is rare in the Earth's crust but relatively common in meteorites.
The Wheel of Misfortune
Who survived? Who didn't? Put 'your' 'life' on the line and give the wheel a whirl!
Finding out what caused the mass extinction is one thing. How and why some groups of animals survived when others did not is another. Unfortunately, gaps in the fossil record and our knowledge about the extinction event mean we may never have all the answers. Even finding a dinosaur under a lump of meteorite only explains what happened to that individual.
A few patterns do emerge. Life in the seas was hardest hit. Many groups of land animals that were either large or warm-blooded, such as non-avian dinosaurs, pterosaurs and primitive birds, also suffered severe losses. Those that survived tended to live in freshwater rivers or lakes, were small, had widespread distributions or were cold-blooded.
Watch out for the escaping dinosaurs flying overhead!