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

Cosmos - - Front Page -

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


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”.


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.


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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