Photos of Queensland's Fireclay Caverns gravity-defying dinosaur prints have been baffling onlookers since 1952, but a chance encounter has solved a puzzle millennia in the making

When dinosaurs were wiped from the face of the earth 65 million years ago, they left behind many mysteries: What did they look like? Where did they go? And, how did they get up there?

In a cave in central Queensland there is a bizarre relic of the extinct monsters. Fossilised footprints, millions of years old, traverse the network of tunnels and mines from the 1950s. However, of the most complete sets apparently defies gravity, traversing the ceiling of one of the abandoned mines.

The town of Mount Morgan near Rockhampton is riddled with traces of millennia-old reptiles.

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It is the "highest dinosaur track diversity for the entire eastern half of Australia" according to Dr Anthony Romilio of the University of Queensland, who helped solve the Jurassic puzzle.

Dr Anthony Romilio, left, excavates a very large dinosaur track in Goolarabooloo. Photo / Supplied, DCMG
Dr Anthony Romilio, left, excavates a very large dinosaur track in Goolarabooloo. Photo / Supplied, DCMG

As a palaeontologist he has used the footprints to extract valuable evidence of how the ancient creatures walked and behaved, 200 million years ago.

"Earlier examinations of the ceiling footprints suggested some very curious dinosaur behaviour," said Dr Romilio.

No, he didn't mean gravity-defying dinosaurs. "The tracks lining the cave ceiling were not made by dinosaurs hanging upside down," he says. What was far more interesting was what could be inferred about the shape and placement of the tracks.

Dr Romilio recently deducted that the carnivorous theropod walked on all four legs, which was something his team "didn't expect".

The species which left the tracks was an early relative of the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Until then scientists had assumed the small forefeet were not used to support the animal.

It's a discovery the scientist says might "change the way we think" about they way the animals evolved.

However, this deduction would not have been possible at all if it wasn't for a chance encounter with a woman from Brisbane.

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Romilio had been working at a fruit stall in the Queensland capital to help pay for his studies when he got talking to a customer. As it turned out, the woman knew the area around Fireclay Caverns well.

Roslyn Dick's father had helped excavate the very tunnel Romilio was studying, when he was working as a mine Geologist in the 1950s.

When he told her his PHD was in "dinosaurs" she said "Oh, well, my dad was a bit interested in them in the '50s."

This was an understatement.

As it turned out her father, Ross Staines, had become obsessed with the animals after he had happened upon the footprints in the cave he was excavating.

He made photos, notebooks and even plaster casts of the footprints in his documenting of the fossils. In other words, it was a treasure trove of evidence for Romilio's study.

"When I mentioned his name his eyes lit up," Dick told the University of Queensland's Earth Sciences faculty.

The Fireclay Cavern mines near Mount Morgan, Queensland, were active through the 1920s and 50s. Photo / Getty Images
The Fireclay Cavern mines near Mount Morgan, Queensland, were active through the 1920s and 50s. Photo / Getty Images

Dick and her sisters had kept their father's dinosaur archive in a cupboard, even after his death. It was a curiosity but they never knew it would be of any use.

Far clearer than anything Romilio's team had access to, the photos contained a complete photo of the five tracks in the ceiling which were since damaged. The photos helped provide a breakthrough that was central to Romilio's research.

"It was like: 'Oh my goodness, this could change the way we think about what went on at this time'," said Dr Romilio.

Dick's treasure trove also helped Romilio solve the mystery of the upside-down dinosaur tracks.

The illogical footprints on the roof were, in fact, not foot prints at all. They were the result of fossilised sediment, compressed by the animals as they crossed a body of water.

"Instead the dinosaurs walked on the lake sediment and these imprints were covered in sand," explained Romilio.

"In the Mount Morgan caves, the softer lake sediment eroded away and left the harder sandstone in-fills."

The bizarre placement of the prints was not made by dinosaurs on the ceiling, but Dick's father's excavations where once was an ancient lake bed - 200 million years ago.