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SYDNEY (Reuters) - Fossils of three new species of dinosaurs have been discovered in Australia, including a meat-eater larger than Velociraptor from the Jurassic Park movies, suggesting Australia may have a more complex prehistoric past.
The two plant-eating and one carnivore dinosaurs, the first large dinosaurs unearthed since 1981, were found in Queensland and date back 98 million years to the mid-Cretaceous period.
"It not only presents us with two new amazing long-necked giants of the ancient Australian continent, but also announces our first really big predator," paleontologist John Long, head of sciences at Museum Victoria said on Friday.
Paleontologist Ben Kear at La Trobe University in Melbourne said the discovery will pave the way for new studies on Australian dinosaurs and their environments.
"Australia is one of the great untapped resources in our current understanding of life from the Age of Dinosaurs," Kear said. "The discoveries...will definitely reinvigorate interest in the hitherto tantalizingly incomplete, but globally significant record from this continent..."
Australia's dinosaur fossil record has been extremely poor compared with North America, South America and Africa.
The new dinosaurs were unearthed during joint Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum and Queensland Museum digs at Winton in outback Queensland.
The meat-eating theropod dinosaur has been called Australovenator (nicknamed Banjo after Australian bush poet Banjo Patterson) and the two plant-eating sauropod dinosaurs are Wintonotitan and Diamantinasaurus
"The cheetah of his time, Banjo was light and agile. He could run down most prey with ease over open ground," said Scott Hocknull, lead author of the dinosaur discovery, published on Friday on PLos One (www.plosone.org/home.action).
"His most distinguishing feature was three large slashing claws on each hand. Unlike some theropods that have small arms (like T Rex), Banjo was different. His arms were a primary weapon. He's Australia's answer to Velociraptor, but many times bigger and more terrifying," said Hocknull.
"Banjo" sheds light on the ancestry of the largest-ever meat-eating dinosaurs, the carcharodontosaurs, a group of dinosaurs that became gigantic, like Giganotosaurus, he said.
The two herbivore dinosaurs were different kinds of titanosaur, the largest type of dinosaur ever to have lived.
Wintonotitan was a tall animal which may have fitted into a giraffe-like niche, while the stocky Diamantinasaurus was more hippo-like, said Hocknull.
Two of the dinosaurs were found buried together in a 98-million-year-old "billabong" or waterhole.
"Billabongs are a built-in part of the Australian mind because we associate them with mystery, ghosts and monsters," said Hocknull, referring to Patterson's poem Waltzing Matilda, which tells of a "swagman" or bushman who jumps into a billabong and drowns after police try and catch him with a stolen sheep.
Hocknull said hundreds more fossils from the dig were still to be prepared and there was more material to be excavated.
Editing by David Fox