‘Cretaceous equivalent of the Serengeti’ found in Australia

27 Mar 2017

An unrelated track. Image: Maderla/Shutterstock

Dinosaur footprints preserved in 140m-year-old Australian rocks have been described by palaeontologists as the country’s equivalent to Jurassic Park.

With 21 different types of dinosaur tracks discovered on just 25km of coastline, Australian palaeontologists are having a field day.

Found along the Dampier Peninsula in Western Australia, the discovery is a major success for a team of palaeontologists from The University of Queensland and James Cook University.

Tracks galore

The area was previously set aside for a A$40bn gas project but, in recent years, its significance for other areas of science has grown.

With thousands of tracks visible on the stretch of land, the team of researchers found that 150 could “confidently” be assigned to 21 specific dinosaurs.

Among these track variations, five different types of predators, six long-necked herbivorous sauropods, four two-legged herbivorous ornithopods and six armoured dinosaurs were confirmed.

Steve Salisbury, lead author of the study published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, said the diversity of the tracks made the area the “Cretaceous equivalent of the Serengeti”.

“It is extremely significant, forming the primary record of non-avian dinosaurs in the western half the continent and providing the only glimpse of Australia’s dinosaur fauna during the first half of the Early Cretaceous period,” he said.

Calling the area a “magical place”, and Australia’s very own Jurassic Park, the findings included the only confirmed evidence for stegosaurs in the country.

“There are also some of the largest dinosaur tracks ever recorded,” he said. “Some of the sauropod tracks are around 1.7 m long.”

The discovery marks evidence of dinosaurs far older than previously discovered in Australia, where most tracks are located on the east of the country, many up to 50m years younger.

Colourful array

Late last year, researchers honed in on what colour dinosaurs were, following evidence of the red-orange hue of beta-keratin, discovered in a 130m-year-old basal bird.

The term ‘basal bird’ relates to species that are close to the base of the evolutionary chain, the earliest birds derived from dinosaurs named Paraves.

In December, a remarkable discovery made at a market in Myanmar has turned out to be that of a dinosaur tail in amber, preserved with feathers and all.

Dating from around 99m years ago, the remains are from a non-avian theropod that existed during the Cretaceous era, which Ryan McKellar, co-author of the paper published in Current Biology, called a “once-in-a-lifetime find”.

The team think the colours of the tail were chestnut-brown on the upper surface, and paler beneath, but the evolution of feathers seems to be what most excites the palaeontologists.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic