Big­gest di­nosaur foot­print found in Aus­tralia’s own Juras­sic Park

5-foot, 9-inch tracks dis­cov­ered in patch of land roamed by 21 species

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Sarah Ka­plan

More than 100 mil­lion years ago, on a muddy stretch of land that is now Aus­tralia, nearly two dozen species of di­nosaur once roamed.

There were duck-billed or­nithopods, which left long, three-toed tracks in their wake. Heavy ar­mored di­nosaurs pressed large, tulip-shaped prints into the soil. Preda­tors scratched the ground with their talons. And the feet of gi­gan­tic, long­necked sauropods cre­ated bath­tub-sized de­pres­sions in the dirt.

As­ter­oids struck, con­ti­nents moved, sea lev­els rose and fell. What was once a damp, forested en­vi­ron­ment sur­rounded by shal­low seas be­came the hot, rugged coast­line of north­west­ern Aus­tralia.

But the di­nosaurs’ tracks re­mained. The foot­print as­sem­blage, which con­tains ev­i­dence of 21 species, is the most di­verse in the world, re­searchers re­ported Fri­day in the Jour­nal of Ver­te­brate Pa­le­on­tol­ogy.

One of those tracks is the largest di­nosaur print ever recorded: a 5-foot-9-inch print from a sauro­pod, or long-necked di­nosaur. The tracks also pro­vide the first ev­i­dence that spiky tailed stegosaurs lived in the land down un­der.

“The tracks pro­vide a snap­shot, a cen­sus if you will, of an ex­tremely di­verse di­nosaur fauna,” lead au­thor Steve Sal­is­bury, a pa­le­on­tol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Queens­land, told Giz­modo. “Twenty-one dif­fer­ent types of di­nosaurs all liv­ing to­gether at the same time in the same area. We have never seen this level of di­ver­sity be­fore, any­where in the world. It’s the Cre­ta­ceous equiv­a­lent of the Serengeti. And it’s writ­ten in stone.”

There are thou­sands of marks along the 15-mile stretch of coast­line, called Wal­madany by the in­dige­nous Goolara­booloo peo­ple and la­beled James Price Point on most maps. Sal­is­bury likened the re­gion to Aus­tralia’s own Juras­sic Park.

The Goolara­booloo have known about the fos­sil track­ways for mil­len­nia. The mas­sive mark­ings, which are vis­i­ble only at low tide, are fea­tured in Goolara­booloo oral his­to­ries, or “song cy­cles,” Sal­is­bury told the BBC.

“They re­late to a cre­ation mythol­ogy, and specif­i­cally the tracks show the jour­ney of a cre­ation be­ing called Mar­ala — the emu man. Wher­ever he went he left be­hind three-toed tracks that now we rec­og­nize as the tracks of meat-eat­ing di­nosaurs,” he said.

In 2008, Wal­madany was se­lected as the pre­ferred site for a nat­u­ral gas plant. Wor­ried that the sa­cred and sci­en­tif­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant site would be lost, the Goolara­booloo reached out to pa­le­on­tol­o­gists and asked them to look into the tracks.

“We needed the world to see what was at stake,” Goolara­booloo leader Phillip Roe said in a state­ment.

The area was listed as a nat­u­ral her­itage site in 2011, and plans for the nat­u­ral gas plant fell apart two years later.

Ac­cord­ing to Sal­is­bury, most other Aus­tralian di­nosaur fos­sils come from the con­ti­nent’s eastern side and date back to the mid-Cre­ta­ceous, about 90 to 115 mil­lion years ago. These tracks are be­tween 127 mil­lion and 144 mil­lion years old.

Damian Kelly, AFP

An “un­prece­dented” 21 types of di­nosaurs fre­quented this area 127 mil­lion to 144 mil­lion years ago. Steve Sal­is­bury of the Univer­sity of Queens­land de­scribed what is now a stretch of the re­mote north­west­ern coast­line as Aus­tralia’s Juras­sic Park.

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