What first appeared as precious gemstones unearthed from an opal field in Australia turned out to be the opalized fossils of a previously unnamed dinosaur.
The dinosaur was named Weewarrasaurus pobeni after the Wee Warra opal field near the small country town of Lightning Ridge where the fossils were recovered, and Mike Poben, an opal dealer who got the fossils in 2013.
Poben later donated the fossils to the Australian Opal Center, a museum in Lightning Ridge that houses the world's largest collection of opalized fossils.
Based on the size of the creature's jaw and teeth, which were the parts immortalized in the opal, paleontologists determined that the fossils were small pieces of ornithopod, a group of bipedal herbivores that includes the Parasaurolophus and the Iguanodon.
The dinosaur species was about the size of a Labrador retriever, walked using its hind legs and had a beak and teeth for eating vegetation. The creature may have moved in herds or small groups for protection.
Preserved In Opal
The nearly 100-million-year-old remains were hewn from brightly-colored opal that formed over the course of many years from the concentration of silica-rich solution below the ground. These gemstones give off a rainbow of colors and in this case, a sparkling green and blue.
Poben came across the sparkly remains when he bought rough opals from miners and had them inspected by Phil Bell, a paleontologist from The University of New England in Australia.
Bell related that the first time he saw the specimen, his jaw dropped and tried hard to contain his excitement.
"When you're working in Lightning Ridge, you can't ignore the fact that some of these things are preserved in spectacular opal that's all the colors of the rainbow," Bell said. "There's no place in the world like this, where you have dinosaurs preserved in beautiful opal."
Bell and colleagues described the dinosaur species and the implications of its find in the journal PeerJ on Dec. 4.
"These results support those of previous studies that favour a general abundance of small-bodied basal ornithopods in Early to mid-Cretaceous high-latitude localities of southeastern Australia, including the Wonthaggi and Eumeralla formations in Victoria and the GCF in New South Wales," the researchers wrote in their study.