Monday, July 18, 2011

Cruising the Cretaceous of Queensland: Student Edition


Earlier this month – July 4-8, 2011 – was my third time to see the wondrous Cretaceous fossils of Queensland, Australia. But it was my first with university students in tow to share in that paleontologically inspired excitement. Our trip together to outback Queensland was during the third week of a five-week program for Emory University students taking a study-abroad program in Australia, taught by me and my good friend (and oh yeah, colleague) Steve Henderson from Oxford College of Emory. We did this trip to give them a taste of what life was like in the modern-day outback and 100 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period, when theropod dinosaurs like Australovenator wintonensis (“Banjo”) likely chowed down on hapless ornithopod dinosaurs, and the whopping pliosaur Kronosaurus queenlandicus was ruling the inland seaway that covered much of the area we saw during our trip.

Paleontological innocents abroad, about to get acquainted with the past lives of outback Queensland. And who could resist posing with a life-sized recreation of the large ornithopod dinosaur Muttaburrasaurus langdoni, located in Hughenden, Queensland? Well, OK, I told them their grades depended on it, so they quickly got into the spirit of things.

Our trip was a bit frenzied, involving more than 2,500 km of driving (fortunately all of it handled by B.J., perhaps the greatest bus driver in the history of Australia), and it was done over the course of just five days, but still provided for a most excellent learning experience. Here is a brief synopsis of what happened and what we learned.

Day 1: Monday, July 4 – We started our trip in Townsville, Queensland, which is the home of James Cook University and site for the classroom work we do in the first and last two weeks of the program. The plan was to drive to Winton, Queensland that day, with a stop en route in Hughenden, which is about halfway to Winton. As loyal readers may recall (or not), Hughenden has the Flinders Discovery Centre, which has a mounted replica skeleton of Muttaburrasaurus and many plant, invertebrate, and vertebrate fossils local to the Cretaceous rocks of that area, as well as a smattering of exotic fossils, such as those all of the way from the U.S. This plan worked brilliantly – which is to say, it worked – as we were able to see heaps of fossils in Hughenden while also getting a much-needed lunch break during the six-hour trip from Townsville to Winton.

A few Emory students, admiring a replica of Muttaburrasaurus at the Flinders Discovery Centre in Hughenden. I could swear one of them said, “It looked much bigger on TV.”

Later that same afternoon, we made it into Winton with time to spare for a visit to the Fitzmaurice and Corfield Building. This building, with its unassuming and decidedly non-paleontological name, actually holds a very nice collection of Cretaceous fossils, including one of the better representative samples of fossil plants from the Winton Formation. Its main claim to fame, though, is its life-sized diorama depicting some epic dinosaurian panic inspired by the Lark Quarry dinosaur tracksite, a mere 110 km (68 km) to the south of where we were gawking.

Why run away when you can draw? A dedicated student attempts to render the dramatic diorama of a massive, rampaging theropod dinosaur and a host of fleeing small theropod and ornithopods, viewable at the Fitzmaurice and Corfield Building in downtown Winton.

Lots of real fossils – plants, invertebrates, vertebrates, and (best of all) trace fossils in the display cabinets at the Fitzmaurice and Corfield Building in Winton also made us stop, look, and listen.

Day 2: Tuesday, July 5, 2011 – After staying for the first of two nights in Winton, we got off to an early start in the morning to the Australian Age of Dinosaurs (AAOD) Centre. Here we were treated to a tour of the facilities by Trish (“Tricky”) Sloan, who, with her extensive paleontological knowledge delivered with good-natured aplomb, informed and entertained us about the dinosaurs that had been found near there recently, such as huge titanosaurs, namely Wintonotitan (“Clancy”) and Diamantinasaurus (“Matilda), as well as the baddest of the bad of Australian theropods, Australovenator ("Banjo"). Trish also let us in on a few recent fossil discoveries that will gain the AAOD even more attention from the paleontological community and general public in the next few years (nope, I ain’t telling).

Look at the bones! The Australian Age of Dinosaurs Centre (AAOD) has enough dinosaurs to study for a long, long time. And what do they do anyway? They keep finding more. Do you blame them?

Trish “Tricky” Sloan of the AAOD shows everyone the right way to prepare a dinosaur bone, using the latest tools of the trade, while also making allusions to dental hygiene that elicited a few winces of painful remembrance.

The students were also wowed by a look at the preparation lab, the sizes of some of the bones being prepared, and getting to hold a real dinosaur bone or two. A surprise appearance by David Elliott – who co-founded the AAOD with his wife Judy Elliott –topped off a great morning for everyone. Actually, it was just a surprise for the students, because I asked David to stop by to meet them, and he graciously agreed. (I owe that bloke a slab or two.)

Of course, you can’t go to Winton without visiting the Waltzing Matilda Centre, so we did just that immediately after the AAOD tour so that everyone could learn about the story behind the unofficial national anthem of Australia. What was unexpected about this visit, though, was that one of my students alerted me to a few small dinosaur tracks and other Cretaceous fossils on display in a room containing old medical equipment. Despite two previous visits to their facility, I never knew about this little collection, literally tucked away in a corner. The Waltzing Matilda Centre also has a small replica of the Lark Quarry dinosaur tracksite rendered in cement outside and in the back, which meant that even a “cultural stop” in our study-abroad curriculum kept referring back to paleontology.

Real dinosaur tracks on display at, of all places, the Waltzing Matilda Centre, alongside old medical equipment. Here’s where I would normally make some witty analogy about doctors and dinosaurs, but I’ll leave that up to you.

Fake dinosaur tracks in concrete at the Waltzing Matilda Centre, but based on real dinosaur tracks not too far from Winton. I think the chain was to prevent people from adding their tracks to those of the dinosaurs, which has been known to happen.

This just goes to show you that it is nearly impossible to avoid bumping up against the rich fossil record of central Queensland and its effect on the people of the area. This point was emphasized even more so that evening when we went to dinner at The Australian Hotel in Winton, and the owner, upon hearing I was a paleontologist, went into a back room and brought out a very nice specimen of a theropod dinosaur track for us to study and admire. This impromptu consultation could not have better demonstrated to our students how deeply paleontology has been integrated into the culture of outback Queensland.

A paleontologist walks into a bar, and the bartender brings him a dinosaur track. Sorry, that no joke: it’s all part of being in Winton. Yes, a beer in one hand and a dinosaur track in the other is indeed a dream come true for me. My life is now complete. (Note also how Steve is looking enviously at both items.)

Wait, I didn’t tell you what we did after the Waltzing Matilda Centre, which was make our way 110 km (68 mi) south of Winton to one of the most famous dinosaur tracksites in the world, Lark Quarry. I’ve written about this tracksite several times before (here, here, and here), so I won’t rehash why it’s so revered.

You have to really want to see the Lark Quarry dinosaur tracksite (which we did), and it was worth every kilometer of travel along that mostly unsealed road while dodging sheep, cows, and ‘roos.

And as a testament to the enduring (and growing) popularity of this tracksite in the public imagination, a big, boisterous crowd on a regularly scheduled tour preceded us. Fortunately, a trail outside of the Lark Quarry Conservation Building beckoned and gave us an opportunity to learn about the geology and geomorphology of this desert region. So Steve, an expert teacher of desert geology in the field, gifted us with a lecture on that topic and engaged in discussion with the students about the landforms around us and how they originated. For example, most erosion in this arid environment was, paradoxically enough, a result of running water, caused by flash flooding from infrequent rainstorms and torrential runoff.

Learning geology in what used to be called, before The Computer Age, “the field,” “outdoors,” or simply “outside” (I know, how retro) on the Spinifex Trail outside of the Lark Quarry Conservation Building, south of Winton, Queensland. This quaint approach to education mostly worked, although judging from the photo, most of our students still need some help in lengthening their attention spans. To be fair, I’m sure they were still puzzling over the meaning and implications of "swagmen," "tucker bags," and "jumbucks" learned earlier that day at the Waltzing Matilda Centre.

After a walk on the trail, it was time to see the tracksite, which we had all to ourselves as the last tour group of the day. Our guide, Vern, told the students the “old” (traditional) story about how a group of more than 100 small dinosaurs – ornithopods and theropods – were startled by the approach of a much larger theropod dinosaur, triggering a stampede nearly 100 million years ago that was recorded by their tracks in the then-soft lakeshore sediments. The students were also awed by this place (at least, I think they were), and one told me later how he suddenly realized, while staring at the tracks, “Wait a minute. There were dinosaurs right here!” Those are the “ah-ha!” moments teachers of paleontology live for, and again demonstrates how trace fossils, like, totally rule.

Students lining up along the walkway overseeing the thousands of dinosaur tracks preserved at Lark Quarry. Don’t worry, I made sure all of the students got out OK, because it would be very embarrassing to get accidentally locked in.

Paleontologist Barbie makes a special guest appearance at Lark Quarry to see the tracksite, and helpfully explains that Wintonopus is an ichnogenus and Wintonopus latomorum is an ichnospecies, both of which are based on a distinctive and recurring form of a dinosaur track preserved here, and not of its inferred trackmaker, which was likely a large ornithopod dinosaur. Need to learn more about the basis of naming trace fossils? Well, you came to the right place. And just in case you’re also intrigued with Paleontologist Barbie, a photo album of her recent adventures in Australia are here.

Day 3: July 6, 2011 – Sadly, we said goodbye to Winton on Wednesday morning, but were off to take a dip in the Cretaceous seaway. And there’s no better place to see the fossil evidence for this seaway than at Kronosaurus Korner in Richmond, Queensland. Richmond is about a four-hour drive from Winton if you want to stay on paved roads (which we did), and was well worth the effort, as we saw a great variety of Cretaceous marine fossils there.

Even better, we had a guided tour by Paul Stumkat, who wears a lot of hats at Kronosaurus Korner: fossil preparator, paleontologist, and paleo-artist. Like Trish Sloan at the AAOD Centre, he was an extraordinary fount of knowledge for our students, and what I originally thought would be a one-hour tour became two-and-a-half times as long. (This was a good thing.) Paul not only led us through the regular exhibits of pliosaurs and other plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs, turtles, fish, ammonites, and much, much more, he also took us into their fossil-preparation lab and a storage shed, the latter of which held a very large and newly discovered Cretaceous fish.

The students get to view an actual fossil specimen of the giant pliosaur Kronosaurus queenlandicus, after seeing a life-sized recreation of one only two weeks before in the Museum of Tropical Queensland. Paul Stumkat (left) of Kronosaurus Korner regaled us with tales of fossils found and yet to be found in the Cretaceous rocks around Richmond.

Day 4: July 7, 2011 – The previous night, we got into Charters Towers to get a little bit of sleep before our next leg of the trip, got up early in the morning, and headed north to the Undara Lava Tubes, which are just south of Ravenshoe, Queensland. Although formed in the mere Pleistocene (190,000 years before now), these geologic features are very spectacular, and, after all, we were also teaching environmental geology along with paleontology as part of the study-abroad program. Thus it was an entirely justifiable part of the trip while also being on our way to the coast.

One of the many lava tubes at Undara National Park, with our students wading through its moist interior. This is where some psychoanalyst might make a remark about the symbolism of descending into a long, dark, tunnel, no doubt while riding a train and smoking cigars. Fortunately, we instead talked about hot magma, subduction, and orogenies.

Lava tubes are formed when the outside part of a basaltic lava cools quickly, but the liquid hot magma continues to flow underneath that hardened crust, leaving a huge, hollow tunnel. Basaltic lava has low viscosity – owing to its high temperature (about 1,200° C) and low silica content, among other factors – and in this instance, the lava flowed a long ways: just more than 160 km (> 100 mi) from the central volcano. Because Steve and I had never been there, nor seen lava tubes like these, our group was folded into a guided tour, which was excellent. The students even became immersed in their subject by, well, immersing themselves. The walkway into one of the tubes was partially underwater, so we ventured undaunted into wetness and darkness. A good time was had by all.

That night (our last of the trip) we spent in Ravenshoe, which began with Steve and me making sure we celebrated our lava-tube-filled day with dinner and an adult beverage at Tully Falls Hotel, the highest pub in Queensland. Later, Steve and I joined a spirited discussion with the students at the pub hotel (where we stayed overnight). Much to our delight, the students were earnestly proposing and debating a wide range of topics – paleontological, geological, biological, environmental, and otherwise. It was almost as if they were behaving like real paleontologists or geologists. We felt like proud parents, only with the decided advantage of not having to pay for their college tuition.

Day 5: July 8, 2011 – Our last full day of the field trip, in which we went from Ravenshoe to Mission Beach and back “home” to Townsville, involved more environmental geology and a little bit of ecology, but with a surprise paleontological twist. In the morning, we witnessed the southern edge of the Daintree rainforest, a World Heritage site noted for its incredible biodiversity, and a brief stop at a roadside overlook along the way gave us a taste of what was there. Our main goal for the day, though, was to see how Cyclone Yasi, a Category 5 tropical storm, had affected the coastal region near there when it made landfall in Queensland on February 3, 2011.

Once we arrived at the coast, we went to the visitor’s center in Innisfail, a place that had been also hit hard by Cyclone Larry in 2006. While there, I asked one of the employees about how the cassowaries (specifically, the southern cassowary, Casuarius casuarius) had fared since the most recent cyclone, knowing that many of their fruit trees – which they depended on for food – had been knocked out of commission. She then gave us a great tip about a nearby area (Etty Bay, just north of Mission Beach) that had easy-to-see cassowaries.

Why did the cassowary cross the road? None of your bloody business, mate. (P.S. I really love these birds.)

Knowing that this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to our students to see live cassowaries outside of a zoo, we headed to Etty Bay. Sure enough, there they were, walking around in the open, in an uncomfortable coexistence with people on holiday at the beach. Why was this uncomfortable (at least, to me)? Because the southern cassowary is one of the few birds capable of severely injuring or killing humans (although this reputation is mostly a bum rap, as they’re nowhere near as dangerous as dihydrogen oxide). 

Nonetheless, before exiting the vehicle, Steve and I made sure that all of the students were well versed in “cassowary safety” by giving them the following tips:

• Do not feed them, no matter how much they may beg, whimper, or threaten.
• Do not approach them in any way, whether aggressively, whimsically, or with an ironic, post-modern perspective.
• Do not put your arm around them to pose for pictures, especially while wearing silly hats.
• Do not attempt to place a saddle on them or otherwise attempt to ride them.
• Do not, by any means, make fun of their secondary flightlessness. (This really makes them mad.)

A few students, distracted by a beautiful beach at Etty Bay, Queensland, temporarily forgot that a large modern theropod dinosaur was sitting just behind them, while others watch warily. No worries, they all steered clear of one another, and no harm was done by either humans or dinosaurs.

Fortunately for our students (and the cassowaries), the former heeded our warnings and kept respectful distances from these potentially dangerous birds. Why were these avian theropods hanging out by the beach, other than for the pleasant atmosphere? Evidently people had been feeding them, so they were now habituated to human food and presence, which is ultimately not good for the cassowaries.

Meanwhile, I was in ichnological heaven, because these big birds were making abundant and exquisitely detailed three-toed footprints on the beach sands. These tracks are absolutely wonderful modern analogues for three-toed dinosaur tracks, especially those made by theropod dinosaurs. It also served as a very nice example of how cassowaries are wide-ranging in their habitats. Normally viewed as “forest birds,” cassowaries play an essential ecological role in the rainforests of tropical Queensland, eating a wide variety of fruits and dispersing seeds through their excrement (colloquially known as “poo”).

Gorgeous tridactyl (three-toed) tracks of an adult southern cassowary on beach sands of Etty Bay, looking much like the tracks of a non-avian theropod from the fossil record.

Close-up of a cassowary track, showing all three toes, claw marks, and skin impressions. The smallest of the three toes is digit II, the middle one with the “killing claw” is digit III, and the remaining one on the outside is digit IV. This one is from the cassowary’s left foot.

Thus it was very satisfying for me (in a contrarian sort of way) to see cassowaries also leaving so many of their traces in intertidal environments, too. This seeming anomaly provided for a nice point of discussion with the students later, when Steve and I later lectured (on the beach, of course) about coastal geology and the interactions of animals from nearby forest ecosystems with coastal environments. I also asked them, “Where did we see tracks like these just two days ago?”, and we were very happy to hear them all say, “Lark Quarry!” In other words, they easily made the connection between these modern avian dinosaur tracks and Cretaceous non-avian dinosaur tracks, both of which they were able to view directly in Queensland, Australia only days apart from one another.

From there on, we only had a few stops along the way back to Townsville, and the trip was officially over that night as we drove into the city. I bade everyone farewell, and wished them luck for the last two weeks of the program, with Steve in charge. The next day, I left for Melbourne and Museum Victoria for a few days of research.

With the end of this trip, though, let us hope that its sights, sounds, and other sensations of the Cretaceous and other times of Queensland, Australia will continue in our imaginations for our collective lifetimes. After all, this is why we do study-abroad programs: to broaden ourselves. Cheers, mates!

Many thanks to: Steve Henderson; Justine Garcia (our illustrious graduate teaching assistant); our willing students, Emily, Hank, Jenna, Iris, Jordan, Giacomo, James, Ally, Meredith; Paleontologist Barbie; and especially the Cretaceous fossils and modern fauna and flora of Australia, because we could not have done this trip without you.

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