Sunday, November 7, 2010

Cretaceous Worlds of Queensland, Part II: In Town in Townsville

As loyal readers may already know (and new readers will learn in the remainder of this sentence), The Great Cretaceous Walk literally ended in late June 2010, but continues metaphorically as an exploration of the Cretaceous worlds of Australia: kind of a “walkabout through time.” The actual walking was done over Cretaceous rocks exposed in Victoria (such as here, here, and here), but more inwardly directed ambulating in the Cretaceous past happened in Queensland, Australia and well north of Victoria.

To see the Early Cretaceous rocks and fossils of Queensland, though, requires covering more than a few kilometers, bringing home the “variety show” that is Australia, well exemplified by just an easy day of travel in this expansive country. On such a day, my partner in paleontological pursuits (Ruth Truth) and I flew from the modern metropolis of Sydney (New South Wales) to Townsville, Queensland in just a few hours.

We went from there to there, and all in just a few hours. However much we complain about airport security, long lines, and expenses, this is the miracle of modern jet travel. Show it a little wonder, and stop whinging so much.

Townsville, Queensland from the air, with its beautiful shoreline and prominent inselberg – Castle Hill – overlooking the city. What’s an inselberg? Read on.

Nonetheless, this short trip entails a considerable change in both latitude and attitude. Townsville is a thoroughly modern town on the Queensland coast, but ensconced in a semi-tropical setting that instantly seduces, rendering the most frenzied city-dweller to sluggard status as soon as you step outside of its charmingly small airport.

Accommodations in Townsville, Queensland are not in the Cretaceous, but some days it feels like it. And that’s a good thing.

Because we were traveling during Australia’s winter – thus neatly missing the record heat of a Georgia summer – the change from the colder (albeit lovely) environs of Sydney to the embracing warmth of Townsville, accentuated by its organic briny smells of the Coral Sea and the squawks of cockatoos, was like taking, a long, slow sip of a craft beer. Which we did as soon as we arrived in downtown Townsville. (Who needs metaphor when you can have reality?)

Ruth and I had been in Townsville before, and have a fondness for it because I have spent more time here than any place else in Australia other than Melbourne. Why? In two previous visits, in 2006 and 2007, I co-taught Emory University study-abroad programs here, hosted on the lush and gorgeous campus of James Cook University. The courses offered in this program were evolutionary biology and ecology of invasions: invasive species, that is. Queensland is a fantastic place to learn natural history in general, and of Australia specifically, which is why I keep coming back to it, sometimes with students in tow, sometimes not.

It’s a jungle out there whenever you take a stroll across James Cook University (JCU) in Townsville: a very nice place to teach American uni students and observe a little bit of Australian nature on the way to and from class.

Modern theropods loose on the JCU campus! (Above) Stone-bush curlews (Burhinus grallarius), which I have seen pack-hunting during the night, but sometimes are out during the day. Make sure you look for the one hiding behind the eucalyptus tree: clever girl! (Below) A laughing kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae), a fierce carnivore with a raucous laughing call. P.S. It’s not a bloody monkey, mates!

But what of the Cretaceous in Townsville? Alas, there are no outcrops of such rocks in the area, and the most prominent geologic feature in the area is an igneous intrusion (now evident as a monadnock or inselberg) called Castle Hill (see the photo of Townsville above, and taken from above).

As a result, whatever Cretaceous rocks and fossils you might see there are in the Museum of Tropical Queensland, a lovely regional museum that neatly summarizes the natural history of this part of Queensland, including the Great Barrier Reef. To see the reef itself entails a 10-minute walk from the museum to a pier and a two-hour boat ride (or four-hours if you want to come back).

Among the displays is a fair-sized one about the Cretaceous rocks and fossils located a short drive west of Townsville. Did I say “fossils”? Yes, and best of all to an ichnologist, these included a few trace fossils along with the body fossils. Invertebrates are represented here, a few vertebrate remains, and even dinosaur tracks.

Some dinosaur tracks on display in the Museum of Tropical Queensland, preserved in a sandstone bed as natural casts, and accompanied by frustratingly little scientific information. Locality? Geologic age? Interpretations of the trackmakers and their environment? My photo was taken in 2006, though, so maybe this display has been updated since. In the meantime, feast your eyes on those tasty looking trace fossils! How many tracks do you see? How many different types of dinosaurs made them? What were they doing? And an added bonus: stylish field sunglasses for scale.

In recognition of the many small ornithopod (“hypsilophodontid”) dinosaurs whose bones keep popping up in the Cretaceous of Queensland and south of it in Victoria, the museum has a small reconstructed ornithopod on display for visitors to admire. I don’t recall which species it is supposed to represent, but it’s about the size of Leaellynasaura amicagraphica from Victoria, mentioned in some previous entries.

Aw, it’s such a cute little hypsilophodontid dinosaur! Can we take him home, mum? I promise I’ll feed him nothing but tree ferns and araucarian cones.

Body fossils include parts of former denizens from the Cretaceous seaway that cut through the eastern part of Australia about 100 million years ago. Cretaceous environments to the east and west of this seaway were where the dinosaurs roamed, but the Cretaceous sea was where dinosaurs had no say in how life was conducted.

The Cretaceous inland seaway of Australia, a great place to be alive. That is, until you got eaten by something else sharing the same seaway. Start studying the place names on the map, because we’re going to be talking about them in future entries. And yes, there will be an exam later. Display is at the Museum of Tropical Queensland.

Although the Cretaceous dinosaurs of Queensland are all the rage right now (understandably so), some of the most spectacular vertebrate fossils coming out of the outback, and just as captivating as dinosaurs, are marine reptiles. Ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs were plentiful in the Cretaceous seas of Australia, and they likely preyed on abundant squid, fish, and each other.

Skull of the Cretaceous elasmosaur Woolungasaurus glendowerensis that probably ended up as lunch for something bigger, a supposition based on the puncture marks on its skull (arrow). This is a two-for-one special, paleontologically speaking: the skull is a body fossil, whereas the toothmarks are trace fossils of whichever sea monster chomped the elasmosaur’s face.

Also impressive are the recreations of these marine animals, which the museum has hung in aesthetically pleasing ways that give a sense of scale, and lends to imagining swimming in the same Cretaceous oceans (which would not last very long if you registered as “prey” in the search images of any of these animals).

The formidable Early Cretaceous pliosaur Kronosaurus queenslandicus, lurking above and waiting for tourists to come into view. Remember those toothmarks on the elasmosaur? We have a suspect in custody.

The plesiosaur (elasmosaur) Woolungasaurus glendowerensis, recreated in full, fish-eating view, and with Kronosaurus in the background (above), and ready for its close-up (below). She’s a beauty!

An ammonite and ichthyosaur, swimming together in harmony. Suspend disbelief for a moment and forget that these are, er, suspended. Sorry to have no species information, but they are very nice to look at, aren’t they?

So with this intellectual and visual information properly lighting up your cerebral hemispheres, we will go west, to central Queensland and the former sites of those Early Cretaceous landscapes and seas that held those varied and wondrous lives. See you next week, and in the Cretaceous of Queensland, Australia!