WEST AUSTRALIA’S JURASSIC PARK
A stretch of coastline in north-western Australia abounds with evidence of one of the world’s most diverse dinosaur faunas. Footprints that provide a rare snapshot of life on Earth 130 million years ago were almost destroyed in the name of progress. JOHN
ACROSS THIS RIVER DELTA about 10 km from the coast on the supercontinent of Gondwana a herd of long-necked sauropods is pacing. They cross sandbars between braided river channels. Their long tails flick back and forth, leaving deep impressions in the soft mud. Travelling among them are other herbivores – stegosaurs, armoured ankylosaurs and small, beaked ornithopods, moving swiftly on their hind legs.
The delta itself holds little attraction for these dinosaurs but acts as a great thoroughfare between fern and cycad forests on either side. Today the mud is just firm enough to record the paths these dinosaurs take. Before rain can rinse those tracks away, a layer of sand will wash over them, preserving the impressions for millennia until Australia’s first human inhabitants notice shapes marked in sandstone and weave them into their Dreamtime narratives.
THE SCENE IS FANCIFUL but something like this must have happened about 130 million years ago to leave traces of 21 kinds of dinosaur in the rock around Walmadany, about 50 km north of Broome in northern Western Australia. The rock is part of a formation geologists call the Broome Sandstone, with outcrops along more than 300 km of the Kimberley coast, straddling the town of Broome.
The menagerie identified around Walmadany includes gargantuan long-necked herbivorous sauropods (think Brachiosaurus); other herbivores ranging from the size of kangaroos to bigger than elephants; the first-ever evidence for stegosaurs in Australia; and five kinds of carnivorous theropods (think Velociraptor). At 70 sites along a 100 km stretch of the coast, tens of thousands of footprints offer a snapshot of a time when Australia was joined to South America, Antarctica and the other southern land masses that then made up Gondwana.
“It would have been like looking out over the Serengeti,” says Steve Salisbury, a vertebrate palaeontologist at the University of Queensland who has led the documentation of at least 70 sites within this fossil trove. “It’s a complete dinosaur ecosystem preserved in these rocks.”
The extent of the footprints was revealed in papers published early in 2017 in the Memoir of the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Peerj. They made headlines worldwide, because some of the sauropod prints – big enough to fit a person – were the largest dinosaur prints ever discovered. These footprints are also significant because they offer a window into Australia in the Early Cretaceous period – a period for which we have almost no fossil records because there are very few rock outcrops of this age in Australia.
To date, almost all knowledge of Australian dinosaurs comes from the east of the continent – and mainly from a time slice covering only 90 to 115 million years ago. “Outside of that bracket we know very little,” Salisbury says.
Phil Bell, a palaeontologist at the University of New England in Armidale, NSW, describes the diversity of species recorded in the Kimberley sandstone as “simply astounding”, adding that it is satisfying to finally see the scientific work done and the results published. “We’ve known about these tracks for decades,” he says, “but they were never studied in detail and their worth never fully appreciated.”
PALAEONTOLOGISTS MIGHT have been in the dark but the tracks were no secret to the local Goolarabooloo people. “To the Goolarabooloo the dinosaur tracks are part of their culture,” Salisbury says. “They feel a strong link to these tracks and have a very deep knowledge of where they are and what’s happened to them over hundreds of generations.”
In 2011, the Goolarabooloo approached Salisbury to document them. They recognised the theropod tracks to be bird-like (birds are, in fact, living theropod dinosaurs). Both the tracks and the impressions of cycad-like plants are woven into Goolarabooloo creation mythology, forming part of a songline about the journey of a being called Marala, the emu man. “Marala was the lawgiver,” explains Goolarabooloo elder Phillip Roe. “He gave country the rules we need to follow. How to behave, to keep things in balance.”
The plant fossils are seen as impressions of Marala’s tail feathers where he sat to rest. The Goolarabooloo believe Marala passed into the sky and settled into the Milky Way – in keeping with how many Aboriginal cultures see the dark space between the stars in the Milky Way as an emu.
While their traditional view of the footprints is quite different to the scientific conclusions, this hasn’t been a problem for Goolarabooloo, such as Roe, who have a close working relationship with Salisbury and his colleagues. Says team member Anthony Romilio: “They see ours as a different interpretation, but it’s not an unwelcome one. Goolarabooloo are of the attitude of inclusion – of sharing knowledge and beliefs.”
IN 2011 THE Goolarabooloo were in crisis. James Price Point, the European name for the Walmadany headland where many footprints are found, had been selected three years before by the West Australian government as the site for an onshore liquid natural gas (LNG) processing facility. The plan had burgeoned into a $45 billion project, including a harbour, led by Woodside Petroleum and backed by the state government. Much of the coastline was to be developed and the Goolarabooloo had little say in it.
Government-backed scientists had surveyed for footprints in 2009-10 but reported there was little of scientific interest, much to the surprise of the traditional custodians. “We needed the world to see
4 EXISTENCE OF ATOMS
Because most people know that atomic theory began with the ancient Greek philosophers Democritus and Leucippus, we tend to overlook how contested this idea was until the early 20th century.
Ludwig Boltzmann (born in 1844) was an Austrian physicist famous for explaining how the properties of atoms lead to the macro-scale properties of matter. Although his work is now considered seminal in thermodynamics, he faced fierce opposition from physicists Wilhelm Ostwald and Ernst Mach, who viewed atoms as nothing but a theoretical construct and thought it time to replace “the old atomic-mechanistic world picture”. In 1904, at a conference attended by many of the big-name physicists of the day, including Boltzmann and his anti-atom nemeses, there was a feeling Ostwald and Mach won the day, leaving the atom on the outs.
Boltzmann hanged himself in 1906. He had what we would now call bipolar disorder, but some speculate his suicide was related to the treatment of atomic theory. Historian Stephen Brush ranks his suicide “as one of the great tragedies in the history of science”.
5 CONTINENTAL DRIFT
While science is based in the rough and tumble of peer review and the contest of ideas, Alfred Wegener could have been forgiven for feeling a bit persecuted.
The German, born in 1880, was a meteorologist, polar researcher and sometime geologist who became intrigued by the similarity between fossils on either side of the Atlantic and the way the shapes of the continents appeared to fit together rather neatly. In 1915 he put forward a new theory arguing the continents had once been joined together in one massive land mass. He called it ‘Kontinentalverschiebung’. We call it continental drift.
At the time most scientists ignored his fanciful theory. One group took things even further after reading a poorly translated edition of Wegener’s work that made him sound a bit too imperious for their liking. The American Association of Petroleum Geologists organised an entire conference for the sole purpose of rubbishing his theory.
Nonetheless, the German was eventually vindicated and his work became the basis for the current scientific consensus on plate tectonics.
6 THE POLITICS OF SOCIOBIOLOGY
The super-heated feud between American biologists Edward O. Wilson and Richard Lewontin in the 1970s was made worse by Lewontin’s office being directly above Wilson’s. Both worked at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Wilson was the curator of entomology (and is famous for his work on ants). Lewontin was a professor of biology (a population geneticist specialising in the application of game theory to evolution).
Wilson put forward a theory called ‘sociobiology’, which he defined as “the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behaviour”. The theory was poorly received by some as it seemed to imply a biological justification of certain political arrangements and social inequalities. Lewontin, whose views were influenced by Marxism, went to town on Wilson’s ideas in every forum he could find, slamming the theory as racist, sexist and capitalist.
Wilson simply noted that Marxism was a “wonderful theory, wrong species”, implying communism might work fine for ants but not for humans. That just made Lewontin madder.
Songlines and science: Goolarabooloo elder Phillip Roe and palaeontologist Phil Bell. Indigenous dreamtime stories differ with the scientific perspective but the two groups have been allied in the effort to preserve the dinosaur prints.
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