Sunday, December 26, 2010
Saturday, December 18, 2010
Sunday, December 12, 2010
Monday, December 6, 2010
Sunday, November 28, 2010
After spending a night in the paleontologically delightful town of Hughenden, my wife and paleo-companion Ruth and I were off to Winton, about 215 km to the southwest.
I had visited Winton once before in 2007, but for only a day and night. Nonetheless, the trip there was so memorable (and why is another story), I had vowed to come back, and was eager for Ruth to visit it with me. Based on my all-too-short foray, I reckoned its combination of paleontology, bush poetry, cowboy culture, ample beer, and welcoming folks would be a winning blend for both of us. So we were prepared to stay a while to better soak up the unique flavors of this place.
We arrived in town early afternoon on Wednesday, June 30 2010, just after the start of the antipodal winter on a gorgeous blue-sky day, and promptly checked into the North Gregory Hotel. I had also stayed at the North Gregory during my previous trip, the main reason being that this was the site of where Waltzing Matilda was first performed in public, in 1895. Was this the original hotel, you ask? Well, no, and neither was its previous incarnation: three fires had wiped out three earlier hotels, including the original one. Hence the designation of this as the “site” where Waltzing Matilda was played. Place is important, as is memory.
The North Gregory Hotel, site of classic songs, fires, beers, paleontology, and other essential facts of life in the outback of Queensland, Australia. Photo is from Rita’s Outback Guide.
With only a few hours of sunlight left, we had a decision to make about our afternoon in Winton: Australian culture or Australian fossils? Our typical eclectic (or is it hedonistic?) attitude of “having our cake and eating it too” held sway, though, so we did both.
First we walked across the street to the Waltzing Matilda Centre, which claims that it is “the only centre devoted to a single song.” (I have little doubt that this assertion is correct, so you should likewise feel no urge to use “The Google” on “the Internets” to find out whether it is true.). The display there does indeed supply a thorough history of the composer Banjo Patterson and how Australia’s most famous song originated (like many songwriters, he was trying to impress a sheila). But Ruth was most impressed with a separate art gallery in the centre, which featured Australian-themed art from local artists.
The beauty of a small town like Winton is that we just had to walk back across the street to sate our thirst for paleontological knowledge. (Also beautiful was that beer could be had on both sides of the street.) The historic Corfield and Fitzmaurice Building, which used to be the town’s general store, is where you go to see fossils in downtown Winton. To see the largest dinosaur bones in Australia, which are coming out of the ground near there, you have to drive a little ways (about 15 km) east of town to the Australian Age of Dinosaurs, and to see a world-class dinosaur tracksite (Lark Quarry), you have to drive a lot more (about 100 km) to the south of Winton. (Do you think that’s enough foreshadowing of the next two blog entries?)
Dinosaurs, the North Gregory Hotel, and a bar! Winton has it all, including an abundant supply of XXXX. No, it’s not what you might first think, but as the Australian joke goes, “It’s how you spell ‘beer’ in Queensland.”
Despite what looked like a small place from the outside, we were impressed with what awaited us inside, all for just a small entrance fee: a nice collection of local fossils (many Cretaceous), and a locally produced diorama that recreated an event from the Cretaceous Period, 95 million years previously, recorded in the aforementioned dinosaur tracksite south of town.
The diorama in the Corfield and Fiztmaurice Building represents a labor of love, depicting in dramatic detail the interpreted scenario of the Lark Quarry tracksite. In it, the artisans reproduced the probable environment (a muddy lakeshore), a few representative dinosaurs that made the tracks – including one very imposing (and rather portly) theropod – and a bunch of dinosaur tracks, looking as if they were made yesterday, when actually they were made sometime in the past few years.
Dinosaur tracks, recreated in downtown Winton and representing tracks from a large number of small dinosaurs, with the real thing (a dinosaur tracksite) about 100 km south of town. I wonder why most of those tracks are heading in the same direction?
The diorama even include a bit of speculation (as far as I know) that one of the small ornithopod-dinosaur trackmakers slipped and fell into the mud, leaving it vulnerable to victimization, whereupon the large theropod set upon it in a most rapacious way. In other words, it got eaten.
Bloody hell – all me mates left me here in the mud for that theropod! (Too late, this small ornithopod discovers that there’s no mateship in the Cretaceous.)
Other than the diorama were fossils, and perhaps the most impressive is a sauropod femur in a display case, which I recall belongs to the sauropod dinosaur nicknamed “Elliott.” This prodigious bone was set alongside the femur of an adult bull (Bos taurus, male version). Considering the cowboy culture of the area, this made for a brilliant contrast, easily understood by nearly any visitor educated in bovine anatomy.
But there was much more than dinosaurs here for a paleo-enthusiast to marvel. How about fossil plants? There were some of those, and as a great two-for-one special that pleased this ichnologist very much, a Cretaceous fossil leaf had a leaf mine preserved in it, where a larval insect burrowed below the leaf cuticle as it chowed down on some yummy mesoglea. How cool is that? These sorts of trace fossils can lend to insights about the original ecosystems in which the dinosaurs lived.
It’s a body fossil (a deciduous-tree leaf) and it’s a trace fossil (the leaf mine in the leaf, indicated by the arrow), coming from Cretaceous rocks of Queensland.
Some trace fossils on display that were not from the Cretaceous, but much more recent (I suspected Pleistocene) were labeled as “Sea Wasp Eggs. Leftopius duponti. Loc. S. Aus.” Yet they looked very much like some insect trace fossils I had seen from Argentina, like beetle pupal cases. So I took this picture and looked up the name later (yes, using “The Google” on “The Internets”), and was gratified to see that they were indeed pupal chambers, they are interpreted as the works of the Pleistocene weevil Leptopius duponti, and they have been reported from South Australia and northern Queensland.
And even though dinosaurs were the paleontological stars of this exhibit, I was pleasantly surprised to see the skeleton of an old (but not quite a fossil) northern hairy nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii) on display, nicknamed the “Winton Wombat.” This wombat became famous within the Australian paleontological community when its bones were found in between some sauropod dinosaur bones at a dinosaur dig site near Winton.
The “Winton Wombat,” a northern hairy nosed wombat that burrowed down next to some dinosaur bones and died in its burrow just so it would confuse some paleontologists a few thousand years later. Cheeky bugger.
Was this a creationist dream come true, where modern mammals and dinosaurs lived at the same time, then were mixed together by a Noachian flood just before burial? Well, as we like to say in the southern U.S.: “Not just no, but hell no!” Here’s a really simple explanation, in three parts: (1) wombats are very good at burrowing; (2) this wombat burrowed down to the level of some 95-million-year-old dinosaur bones near the surface (which, as a matter of fact, is where they are found today); and (3) the wombat died in its burrow. Or, a miracle occurred. Your pick.
So what was next on our quest for furthering our paleontological education in the Winton area? How about a visit to the most exciting recent development in Queensland paleontology, the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Centre? See you there next week!
Saturday, November 20, 2010
In the heart of central Queensland is the town of Winton, a place with a long human history, and a even longer geologic history, the latter more so by about three orders of magnitude. So in chronological order and applying those orders of magnitude (base 10), here’s a summary of the history of that area and who was living there.
• 100 million years ago: Dinosaurs, such as Australovenator, Diamantinasaurus, and Wintonotitan, some crocodiles, insects, and a good number of land plants were thriving in environments on and around rivers, lakes, and the coast of the Cretaceous seaway. Although the climate was fairly warm, the southern part of Australia was only just then waving goodbye to Antarctica, the start of a northward drifting of Australia that brought it ever so closer to the equator.
Depiction of a Cretaceous scene, in which small ornithopod (left) and theropod (right) dinosaurs live together in idyllic harmony on a lakeshore, surrounded by lush semi-tropical vegetation. But note the foreshadowing of impending doom (is there any other kind?), hinted by one ornithopod peeking nervously over its shoulder. What could be warranting its attention? Oh, and if you want to see this artwork in person, just go to Lark Quarry, otherwise known as Dinosaur Stampede National Monument (no, I am not making that up), about 100 km south of Winton, Queensland.
• 10 million years ago: We know the Cretaceous seaway was long gone. We also know that the last of the non-avian dinosaurs had been gone from Australia (and the rest of the earth, for that matter) for about 55 million years, but these were succeeded by birds, which Australia had in abundance then and now. Marsupial and monotreme mammals were evolving into lineages somewhat familiar to us today, and some of the biotic exchange with the now-nearby New Guinea was starting to take place. The Riversleigh fossil assemblage, several hundred kilometers to the northwest of Winton, provides reasonable precursors of what might have been living in central Queensland about 15 to 25 million years ago.
Reconstruction of the so-called “marsupial lion” Thylacoleo carnifex, stalking some prey (perhaps you, although your species had not yet evolved to be stalked). It or its close relatives lived starting 25 million years ago in this area and persisted until the Pleistocene Epoch, less than a million years ago. As you can see from the diorama, sightings of this extinct animal only happen once in a blue moon. Display is at the Riversleigh Fossil Centre in Mt. Isa, Queensland.
• 1 million years ago: I know very little about this part of Australian history, other than land plants, invertebrates, and vertebrates were still evolving, diversifying, and occasionally going extinct with changing environments. Australia had continued drifting to the north, and was not too far off where it is today.
• 100,000 years ago: The landscape would have looked somewhat similar to those today, with grasslands dotted by eucalyptus, lots of marsupials – some rather large, such as the giant kangaroo Procoptodon goliah and the whopping wombat Diprotodon australis – a few reptiles – also large, such as the komodo-dragon-on-steroids Varanus priscus – and flightless birds – yes, these were rather non-small as well, such as Dromornis stirtoni and Genyornis newtoni. No people yet, but they would be there soon enough.
The biggest marsupial that ever lived, Diprotodon australis, and it lived in Australia. Specimen is in the South Australian Museum, Adelaide, South Australia.
The biggest land lizard that ever lived, Varanus priscus, and it lived in Australia. Specimen is in the Museum of Victoria, Melbourne, Victoria.
The biggest land bird that ever lived, Dromornis stirtoni, and it (you guessed it) lived in Australia. See what happens when evolution selects against those pesky placental mammals? Specimen is in the Museum of Central Australia, Alice Springs, Northern Territory.
• 10,000 years ago: The ancestors of the indigenous people in this region had already been living here for at least 30,000 years (probably longer). All of those big land vertebrates mentioned earlier? Gone. Which fits a pattern in late Pleistocene-Holocene biogeography: whenever people show up, big animals tend to go extinct.
• 1,000 years ago: Yes, the ancestors of the indigenous people were still living here. Seems they had figured out how to live with the land, despite losing some ecologically important animal resources several tens of thousands of years earlier. The landscape looked very much like that of today, but had been shaped massively by fire. This was partially from pre-human fires, then accelerated by people, who became experts at fire ecology. And however hard it might be to believe for anyone who travels in Australia today, not a single hoofed mammal was anywhere on the continent, let alone in this area.
• 100 years ago: The descendants of the indigenous people were mostly gone (that’s a long, sad story), and descendants of European people (mostly from the British Isles) had established the town of Winton 35 years earlier, in 1875. Hoofed animals, imported from Europe, were now ubiquitous, as were (unfortunately) rabbits.
And now? Winton does not live in the past, but it certainly lives off the past. Prominent among the points of local pride is a focus on what lived in the area 100 million years ago. The first clue of this, and that something is a little different about Winton and a few other central Queensland towns, is visible as you drive into town and take a look at its rubbish bins:
Winton puts its best foot forward when it comes to taking care of your rubbish. A theropod foot, that is. Gee, I wonder what kind of tracks those would make?
Before arriving, you also see road signs hinting of Winton’s connection to the Cretaceous, including those that tell you you’re on the Dinosaur Trail of Australia.
It’s a sign that people are obsessed with the past here in Winton. And, from this paleontologist's perspective, that’s a good thing.
This is a place that loves dinosaurs and everything about the geologic past. Sure, there’s some attention paid to the fact that Winton is the birthplace of Qantas Airlines (where “QANTAS” = “Queensland And Northern Territory Aerial Service”) and, more importantly, the birthplace of the unofficial “national anthem” of Australia, Waltzing Matilda, penned by famed “bush poet” and songwriter Banjo Patterson and performed there in 1895. Ever since, Winton has attracted numerous bush poets, and has hosted bush poetry festivals and championships.
So before we get to talking about the dinosaurs that used to live in the vicinity of Winton, let’s listen to that beautiful and haunting song, with its lyrics about a billabong and the spirits that still dwell in this land, dinosaurian and otherwise, evoking a history we try to imagine but can never relive.
Three renditions of Waltzing Matilda, which was born in Winton. The first is a classic, performed by the most famous of Australian country singers, Slim Dusty. The second is extraordinarily beautiful, played by Dutch violinist André Rieu in Australia. The third is, well, different from the other two. Nonetheless, this last one was “played” in the North Gregory Hotel, site of the song’s original performance 115 years previously, and the performer was aided considerably through the use of a player piano.
Next week, we will look at some of the fossils that can be viewed in downtown Winton, giving a taste of the paleo-treats that await us in upcoming weeks.
Saturday, November 13, 2010
If you want to visit the former locations of the Cretaceous seaway that cut through Australia 100 million years ago, as well as its coastal and landward environs, the easiest way to do this is to fly into Townsville, Queensland (mentioned in last week’s entry), rent a car, and drive west.
This is the point in the narrative where someone might invoke the cliché, “Go west, young man,” but I do not qualify as “young” any more, plus my wife - Ruth – was with me on this journey. Thus inclusivity, as oppposed to ageism and sexism, negate my saying that phrase. Regardless, I try to avoid clichés like the plague, but your mileage may vary, depending on how you roll the dice. (After all, no matter where you go, there you are.)
A paleogeographic map of northeastern Queensland 100 million years ago, during the Cretaceous Period; map from the Museum of Tropical Queensland. Arrow points to Hughenden, the subject of this post. Notice how that area was coastal then (the white part represents the inland sea). Also note the inconvenient lack of roads during the Cretaceous.
Renting a car in Townsville for going into the Australian outback can be a bit tricky, as rental agencies frown on their vehicles going onto unsealed surfaces, including dirt roads. In sympathy with rental agency employees, who probably have a litany of horror stories about crazy foreigners destroying life, limb, and (most importantly from their perspective), property, I certainly understand the “off-road” restriction for a car that does not have four-wheel-drive, roll bars, exhaust pipe running above the roof, Kevlar tires, and other battle-ready accoutrements that many Australians advocate for driving in their continental interior. But to me, it seems too cautious to keep perfectly fine all-wheel-drive (AWD) cars off dirt roads that are marked clearly on a standard road map and government maintained.
So for the sake of privacy and not wanting to offend the agency that so kindly rented us a vehicle, please consider any mentions of driving on dirt roads as pure fiction.
The sport “ute” (utility vehicle) used for field work in Victoria, Australia during The Great Cretaceous Walk in May-June 2010, courtesy of the Museum of Victoria. This is the type of field vehicle you need to take for dealing with the harsh Australian outback, although a good number of Australians in recent years have been using them for just driving to Woolie’s to stock up on vegemite and VB. Alas, we lacked such a vehicle in Queensland, yet we somehow survived.
We did take one serious precaution that many of our Australian friends suggested, which was to keep lots of water in the car. This safeguard is in case you get a flat tire or otherwise break down several hundred kilometers from the next town, as help might be a long time in coming and you should have plenty of drinking water on hand. Fortunately, Townsville has many grocery stores that stock 20-liter jugs of water, so we purchased two of these and kept them in the “boot” (or “trunk,” for all you Yanks out there). Incidentally, these jugs rode several thousand kilometers with us and ultimately returned unused to Townsville, which we donated to our hotel before departing. Oh well: better safe than thirsty.
Properly stocked with our sloshing supply of dihydrogen monoxide (the deadliest substance known to humankind), we left on the morning of June 30, and drove southwest for about three hours – passing through only a few pub-hotel “towns” along the way – before arriving at the first paleontologically significant town, Hughenden. I had visited Hughenden about three years previously (2007) during a whirlwind weekend trip from Townsville to the outback (and back), and was looking forward to seeing it again. Of course, I was also curious how it might have changed during the intervening time.
What to see in Hughenden, and why stop there, especially if someone is eager to make it to Winton? Well, how could a dino-phile avoid pausing for a visit after being greeted by a life-sized replica of the ornithopod dinosaur Muttaburrasaurus langdoni? This prodigious example of paleo-statuary is hard to miss, and is easily spotted on the right side of the road as you drive into town, located next to an old-fashioned outback pub hotel (sadly closed).
The large and very friendly Cretaceous ornithopod dinosaur Muttaburrasaurus, a roadside icon for Hughenden. Look at the size of this beauty! Photo by Ruth Schowalter.
Hughenden also has a very nicely arranged display of local fossils and some information about the local natural and human history, housed in the Flinders Discovery Centre. For only $3.50 (AUD) admission, you can see a short film about the geologic history of the area (which actually was quite good), walk and gawk through the display to your heart’s content, take as many photos as your digital-memory card can hold, and otherwise enjoy learning about the rich natural history of central Queensland. The star of the display, though, is a mounted cast of a Muttaburrasaurus skeleton.
If you didn’t like the Disney version of Muttaburrasaurus pictured earlier, here’s the Tim Burton one, which can be viewed in all of its awesomeness in the Flinders Discovery Centre.
This dinosaur, besides having what is probably the most fun-to-say dinosaur name (other than Micropachycephalosaurus), is the largest known ornithopod in Australia, which was apparently overrun with smaller, “hypsilophodontid” dinosaurs, especially in Victoria. Also unlike the Cretaceous dinosaurs of Victoria, this dinosaur is known from a nearly complete skeleton, including a skull. It derived its colorful name from a small town south of Hughenden near where it was found – Muttaburra – which in turn is named after an indigenous word, meaning “meeting of the waters.” This is a very insightful appellation, reflecting how this now-dry (almost desert) area did indeed meet a Cretaceous seaway 100 million years ago.
Other fossils are in the Flinders Discovery Centre, most of them Cretaceous, and most of them local, thus showcasing the paleontological importance of this area for understanding Cretaceous life in Australia. In fact, bones from some of the Cretaceous marine reptiles, giant clams (Inoceramus), and ammonites were recognized in this area during the mid 19th century. Many such fossils – most of them real – were out in the open, allowing for unfettered photography, and those below glass in cabinets also beckoned for a close look. (And just as a curmudgeonly aside, I love these smaller, local museums for putting real fossils on display, eschewing the “bells-and-whistles” virtual-reality displays embraced by so many other museums in recent years.)
Wow, look, real Cretaceous fossils! In this case, ammonites of all shapes and sizes, with a modern Nautilus thrown in for contrast and scale.
This beautiful fossil decapod, simply labeled as “Crayfish,” is most likely a marine species, and not a freshwater crayfish (“yabby”) for which Australia is famous. Its label also says it is from the Cretaceous, so it would be nice some day to know its exact taxonomic affinity. After all, I have a keen fondness for Australian freshwater crayfish from the Cretaceous.
And you just knew this ichnologist was not going to neglect mentioning trace fossils, and the center had a few displays about those, too.
Cast of a large Australian theropod dinosaur track, which was labeled as “Allosaurus footprint,” but is probably not from that genus, which is North American. (Close enough, as it certainly was made by a large, Allosaurus-sized theropod, though – so no harm done.)
Branching invertebrate burrows preserved in a limestone as natural casts. These burrows are what most ichnologists would call Thalassinoides, trace fossils that are normally associated with crustacean tracemakers.
Ruth was delighted with the artistic portrayals of dinosaurs in the center, some of which would no doubt evoke snickers, chuckles, chortles, and outright guffaws from some of my paleontologically oriented friends because of their postural and chromatic inaccuracy (the dinosaurs, that is, not my paleo-friends). Nonetheless, we enjoyed seeing these included in the display area too, and appreciate all of the local effort that went into constructing these homages to all things dinosaurian.
Kitschy dinosaur-inspired sculptures in the Flinders Discovery Centre, which I think are of an ornithopod (left) and sauropod (right). And if you don’t like them, make your own bloody dinosaurs!
And if that isn’t enough to satisfy any artistic yearnings, metal sculptures of a dinosaur and pterosaurs adorn public spaces outside the center, lending some whimsy along with the well-deserved local pride.
It’s not Truckasaurus, but it’s pretty close. Nicknamed “Darby the Dinosaur,” this sculpture was inspired by Muttaburrasaurus, then conceived and made in 1998 by local artists Terry Lindsay and Sam Brown. They put together whatever spare parts they could find, set their creation in concrete, and garnished it with real Cretaceous fossils (below "Darby").
This would be the last thing you would see if a pterosaur became a Transformer. (Yes, I know, big “if.”) The sculpture is nicknamed “Leanneosaur," and coincidentally, one of the artists (Shane Rogers) who created this metallic menace has a wife named Leanne. The other artist was Terry Lindsay, also partially responsible for “Darby,” and the piece was completed in 2004.
So Hughendgen is a great place to visit for paleo- and art-nerds alike (Ruth and I qualify as both). In fact, we liked Hughenden and the Discovery Centre so much, we made a point of stopping there on our way back to Townsville nearly a week later. That is when Ruth and I purchased a dinosaur hand puppet (a theropod, of course), which was put to good use in a dinner-theater performance only a few days later. (Digression? No, foreshadowing.)
So Ruth and I spent one night in Hughenden, then were off in the morning to our next stop on the “Dinosaur Trail,” which was Winton, a town that lives off past lives of the Cretaceous, as well as the much more recent past. Why? Tune in next week, when I’ll talk about Winton and its connections to paleontology, the unofficial national anthem of Australia, bush poetry, and beer (and perhaps not in that order).