Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Of Min Min Lights and Ichthyosaurs

As loyal readers know from previous entries, following field work in Victoria, my wife Ruth and I went on a paleontologically themed “drive-about” (as opposed to walkabout) in western Queensland last July 2010. We started in Townsville, and went west from there (after all, going east would have put us in the Coral Sea). We then paused for a fun day and night in Hughenden, followed by three glorious days and nights in Winton. Where to go next for a married couple in pursuit of more knowledge about fossils and their role in inspiring the human imagination in Australia? Well, how about Boulia?

An artistic recreation of Cretaceous ichthyosaurs frolicking like dolphins at the Stone House Museum in Boulia, Queensland (Australia), thus providing a good example of how convergent evolution influences art: mural by Rona Thoragood (1997). For more about intersections between paleontology and art in outback Queensland, check out Ruth Schowalter’s (Hallelujah Truth’s) musings here and here.

We knew almost nothing about Boulia before visiting it, other than brief descriptions in tourist brochures we had picked up in Townsville, Hughenden, and Winton. But in every one of these was a blurb about the Stone House Museum and “Dinosaur” Dick Suter, an amateur fossil collector who had put together an educational display of Cretaceous fossils from around those parts. Knowing the area around Boulia was in the middle of the former Cretaceous seaway, we figured that the museum would have plenty of items to slake our continuing thirst for learning about Australian life from 100 million years past.

After bidding a sad goodbye to Winton, it was about a four-hour drive on one-lane roads for much of the way to Boulia. On entering town, we noted that, though small, it was bigger than most outback-Queensland towns we had seen, some of which have names on a map solely because of a single pub hotel just off the road. Boulia likewise had a pub hotel, which ably met our budgetary and adult-refreshment needs. A petrol station, only a short walk from the hotel, had meals and snacks, and our sitting down for supper on its open-air porch provided an all-too brief tourist-eye view of the relaxed pace of life in Boulia.

But before that, we went to Boulia’s year-round and non-paleontological claim to fame: a place devoted to telling tales about the legendary Min Min Lights, fittingly called the Min Min Light Encounter Centre. Sara Collins –  in charge of promoting tourism in Boulia – was there at the center and served as an all-around lovely person for welcoming newcomers, Yanks included. She successfully persuaded us to go experience their display, and we were not disappointed, as it involved entertaining animatronics, sound effects, storytelling, a rotating room (really), and of course, lots of lighting effects. It was what would happen if The Muppets ever worked with Steven Spielberg. (Which, actually, they did, but they really need to get together more often.)

What are the Min Min Lights? They are disembodied, moving, and multi-colored lights, either real or imagined, that appear in the night sky in this part of the outback. Interestingly, the story of the Min Min Lights reminded me of the Marfa Lights, reported near the small town of Marfa in west Texas (USA) since the 1950s. The best scientific explanation for such recurring phenomena throughout the world is that they represent Fata Morgana (which, incidentally, would also be a great name for a rock band, a James Bond villain, or both). A Fata Morgana is a mirage caused by atmospheric distortions and reflections of light that form at the interfaces between air masses with different temperatures. Or something like that: I'm a paleontologist, not a physicist.

Entering Boulia, Queensland at dusk, a ghostly windmill looms in the distance, and wait – what’s that? It’s either the Min Min Lights, or the headlights of a “sport ute:” whichever you prefer to believe.

The next morning, we checked out of the hotel and went straight to the Stone House Museum at its opening time. And there outside it was “Dinosaur” Dick Suter himself: 74 years old, but filled with the proverbial vim and vigor. Because we were his first visitors for the day, he devoted a good amount of time to educating us about the fossils there before other tourists drifted in later that morning. Most of the fossils were in a one-room building behind the eponymous Stone House (which dealt more with human stuff, thus did not hold my interest for very long). This little house had an eye-catching sign for any paleontologically inclined folks:

It’s a sign! But it’s not the Min Min Lights. Instead, it’s a straightforward and entirely truthful advertisement about the Cretaceous marine-reptile fossils within the small house on the grounds of the Stone House Museum. Oh, and there’s lots more than “just” marine reptile fossils, too!

This area of the world is well known for its Cretaceous marine reptiles, so I was not surprised to see that these were most prominently mentioned. Dick Suter has previously told people that none of these animals were dinosaurs, so his nickname of “’Dinosaur’ Dick” is a bit of a misnomer in that respect. It really should be “’Ichthyosaur’ Dick,” despite its lack of alliteration, or “’Ichthyosaur-Elasmosaur Dick,” or “’Ichthyosaur-Elasmosaur-Chelonian Dick,” or…OK, I’ll stop. The point is, he finds lots of fossils in the area around Boulia, none of which are dinosaurs.

What did he have? Yes, bones of the aforementioned ichthyosaurs, elasmosaurs, and chelonians (the last also called "turtles" to most people) were indeed there, as well as fossil fish (including some beautifully preserved fish heads), ammonites, and a wide variety of invertebrate fossils other than ammonites. As an ichnologist, though, I was pleased to see two types of trace fossils there: gastroliths (pictured twice before in this blog – here and here) and a supposed turtle coprolite. Coprolites, which are fossil feces (yes, they fossilize, but please do not experiment with this at home), are always tricky trace fossils to correctly distinguish from, say, a mass of rock that just happens to look like a pile of excrement. But the one he had on display probably was a coprolite, based on its form, content, and association with probable poopmakers, er, I mean, tracemakers. I just wish the contents could be examined in more detail to test this suppository theory further.

A coprolite identified as belonging to a Cretaceous turtle at the Stone House Museum in Boulia, Queensland, in which the rock was broken open to reveal a part and counterpart of the coprolite. Note what looks like either shell or bone fragments in a compacted, slightly rounded mass, which constitutes not-bad evidence supporting this object as a coprolite. But where exactly was it collected? Which geologic formation is it from? Is the specimen archived with a museum number and other information about its discovery? And how do we know it came out of a turtle bum?

Some possible tracemakers for coprolites in the same Early Cretaceous deposits: sea turtles, identified as Notochelone costata. How would we be able to make a good, testable hypothesis that would link these turtles with supposed turtle coprolites? Think about it, but not too much, because it’s actually not that complicated.

Other than the trace fossils (and oh yeah, the marine reptiles, ammonites, and other body fossils), Ruth and I were most impressed with the colorful paleo-art adorning the interior walls of the house. These murals were painted by Rona Thoragood in 1997, and they were lovely. I particularly liked the following one because of its color, composition, and attempt to show the major players in the original ecosystems from the Cretaceous Period.

Artist’s depiction of the Early Cretaceous seaway that covered much of what is now called Queensland, Australia about 100 million years ago. Shown in the ocean are: pterosaurs flying overhead; a large, long-necked plesiosaur (center), a short-necked plesiosaur - perhaps a pliosaur (right); ammonites (below center); teleost (bony) fish; a colorful coral reef; and a sea turtle swimming over the reef, evoking comparisons to the Great Barrier Reef. Note to creationists: the wall air-conditioning unit in the middle of the mural was not extant during the Cretaceous.

After our visit, we left Boulia and the former Cretaceous seaway for our next destination, the considerably larger town of Mt. Isa. As we departed, we were left with lasting memories of the bountiful and beautiful fossils of this land, as well as the beguiling Min Min Lights that still illuminate our imaginations.

Wait, did you think I was saying goodbye? That the Great Cretaceous Walk is going to stop walking? As if. In next week’s entry, I will sort out a few lingering thoughts provoked by our visit to Boulia that concern the somewhat uneasy relationships between academic paleontologists (people like me) and amateur paleontologists (people like Dick Suter, who greatly outnumber the academics).

But for now, I’ll leave you with Australian country-music performers Sara Storer and John Williamson, singing Raining on the Plains, which much of the Queensland outback experienced in a big way with the recent passage of Cyclone Yasi. (And please do note the all-too-important appearance of upraised and soon-to-be-emptied beer glasses at 0:54 and 1:45.)

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