Digging for dinosaurs all in a day’s work for David

Questacon Excited Particle David Cannell holding a fossil in outback Queensland

Questacon Excited Particle David Cannell has been working at Questacon as a science communicator and performer for over fifteen years and in that time has frozen, smashed, burnt and exploded his way through countless Spectacular Science Show performances for the entertainment and education of Questacon visitors. However the topic that gets him most excited and fired up is that of dinosaurs. Raaawwwwrrrr!

David has kept Questacon visitors up to date with the latest dinosaur discoveries and theories, especially those based in Australia, through his popular weekly dinosaur presentations at Questacon.

“I’ve been regularly presenting on dinosaurs throughout my time at Questacon, and I’ve been amazed by the rapid change in the field as new ideas are proposed and accepted and older ones discarded. Fifteen years ago feathers were a bit of a joke, and there was no Brontosaurus,” David said.

David has also introduced Questacon’s younger visitors to the world of dinosaurs, creating the popular Dinostory puppet show series that is performed during school holidays.

Working with Mutty the Muttaburrasaur, the star of Dinostory saga, has been an adventure in itself.

“I had no idea of how raucous the dinosaur sense of humour was, but then again, if you can’t laugh in the face of extinction, what can you laugh at?” David mused.

Mutty’s adventures now compromise six chapters: The Fellowship of the Egg, Lord of the Wings, Allosaur in Wonderland, Waltzing Muttaburrasaurs, Live and Let Dinosaur and The Lizard of Oz.

Despite his palaeontological passion and an earlier two-year stint at the National Dinosaur Museum, David has no formal training in the area. So it was with great interest that last year he took up an opportunity to attend an actual dinosaur dig with Australian Age of Dinosaurs Ltd (AAOD).

“Basically it’s a week-long dig in outback Queensland where a significant number of Australian dinosaurs have been recently discovered.  Small teams of paying volunteers assist the AAOD crew to excavate possible sites for hundred million year old fossils for display in their museum in Winton,” David said.

Questacon assisted David to participate in the dig, with the condition that he would incorporate the knowledge and experience he gained into Questacon’s programme content.

“The dig in Western Queensland in May 2014 was both exhausting and exhilarating as I helped to uncover three different fossil sites. The first two sites provided only small fragments but the third provided a number of possible vertebra, ribs and parts of the pelvis of a sauropod (long-necked dinosaur),” David said.

“I spent a day and a half painstakingly uncovering a single bone encased in rock from the equally hard dirt. It could have been part of a shoulder element, or equally could have been the fossil equivalent of trash, but it was exciting to me!

“Importantly, I gained vital knowledge of the trials and tribulations of paleontological field work, made excellent contacts and learned a great deal about life in Australia one hundred million years ago.

“I learned that the biggest Australian finds of the last decade include a 16 metre long herbivore, Diamantinasaurus (nicknamed Matilda), and a rather vicious 6 metre long carnivore, Australovenator (nicknamed Banjo). There is also a larger herbivore (awaiting publication and naming) that only goes by the nickname of Wade—Aussie dinosaurs get very Aussie nicknames!” David said.

Upon returning to Canberra, David set to work developing Questacon content based on his experiences in the field. His presentation about his experiences, as part of Questacon’s evening Torque series was enjoyed by an audience of all ages.

New photos and information from David’s field trip were added into his weekly dinosaur science presentations and he was also inspired to write a brand new puppet show – The Lizard of Oz featuring Banjo, Matilda and Wade.

“During the April school holidays we completed the second season of The Lizard of Oz to a roaringly good reception from Questacon visitors. The most challenging part of this show was creating a life-sized Matilda neck and head, with a lot of work by the very talented Questacon Excited Particle puppet maker Barb Setnicar. We did this through chatting to AAOD palaeontologists about the likely shape of her head, as her skull has never been found,” David said.

A year has passed and David is again heading off to western Queensland for another dinosaur digging adventure. Questacon is assisting him to attend the dig and he is also staying an extra fortnight to work the fossil labs in Winton to earn a certificate in fossil preparation.

“This means I will be able to work in fossil labs around the world. This is where you spend hours and days patiently chipping away at a fossil to remove rock from the bone, to tidy it up for analysis and display. There is a huge shortage of people able to do this, and as a result there is thought to be around 15 years of Queensland fossils in storage that need prepping,” David said.

David appreciates Questacon’s support for his paleontological passion, but is confident it brings unique benefits to Questacon’s visitors.

“Questacon’s assistance and encouragement to attend these field excursions is tremendously valuable professional development for me. It allows me to speak with Questacon visitors with greater authority as someone who gets their hands dirty with science out in the field,” David said.

“It allows me to communicate with great enthusiasm and I hope will encourage the children I interact with to take a more favourable view of palaeontology, and science generally, as rich with opportunities for a fascinating career. After almost every show I find myself talking to parents and children about how one goes about becoming a palaeontologist.”

David is ready to depart once more for the dirt and dust of a dinosaur dig.

“I’ve got my fly net and cameras packed, I’ve had some special digging tools prepared and I even have a brand new palaeo pick that I’ve had engraved with  “+1 to discovery”. I’m ready.”