Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Mystery of Lark Quarry

One of the most famous dinosaur tracksites in the world – Lark Quarry Conservation Park in central Queensland – is protected from the elements of the Australian outback by a beautiful, spacious, and environmentally friendly building. But how comfortable would it be to spend a night there, alone with the dinosaur tracks? I was about to find out, having been accidentally locked in, and just after the departure of the last tour of the day.

Lark Quarry has gorgeous dinosaur tracks, and lots of them. But would you sleep with them?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Why Dinosaur Tracks Matter

As an ichnologist, I have often witnessed and noted the contrasting enthusiasm of someone finding a dead body, versus finding clues that tell a story, but lack a body. No, I am not writing about a scene from some lurid U.S. crime show on TV (CSI, NCIS, Bones, ad nauseum).

A crime scene in progress, where one fossil collector turns on another, either in a jealous rage over a recently discovered Cambrian trilobite, or (more likely) because the ichnologist (right) will not stop complaining about the lack of trace fossils in the rocks.

Instead, this is about the excitement that surrounds the discovery of a bone, shell, or other body fossil in the field, and how that interest stands in direct contrast to the discovery of a trace fossil, which may have been made by the very same animal that owned the body part.

Now, this is not to put down bones, shells, impressions, carbon films, or other fossils that reflect former bodily remains of plants and animals. I am likewise very happy to find body fossils, and become excited for my fellow paleontological practitioners when they uncover these, too. After all, let’s say you crack open a rock with a hammer, and that rock splits to reveal the remains of a once-living, once-breathing, once-reproducing, once-feeding (well, you get the idea) plant or animal. Then dig this (pun intended): yours are the first human eyes to see it since it shuffled its mortal coil and became one with the earth. How could any feeling human being not be excited by that thrill of discovery?

Paleontology in practice is an inclusive science, though, in which its participants ideally employ a combination of body fossils, trace fossils, and chemical fossils to reconstruct life before humans. Body fossils, appropriately enough, consist of body parts, and hence represent direct evidence of ancient life. Trace fossils normally do not include any body parts and are the products of behavior; these fossils are best represented by tracks, trails, burrows, nests, feces, toothmarks, scratchmarks, and other forms of indirect evidence. Chemical fossils consist of ratios of elements that tell you something was alive just before its elements were incorporated into an examined rock, such as stable isotopes of carbon (no, I will not explain that – but you can read about it here) or certain compounds called biomarkers.

So when given this list of possible fossils, which do you think paleontologists work with the most? Yes, you’re right: body fossils. Accordingly then, the paleontologists who receive the greatest public accolades for their finds are those who discover or describe body fossils. OK, so of these body fossils, which ones get the most attention from that same adoring public? Why yes, you’re right again: dinosaurs! Granted, an occasional fossil fish or mammal sneaks into the bright, shiny media spotlight, but a single dinosaur bone, especially of a large carnivore, can generate thousands of headlines, Facebook status updates, Tweets, and other digital shockwaves.

A single dinosaur bone – a pelvic bone, specifically – from the Cretaceous of Victoria, Australia that got a wee bit of public recognition recently. Why yes, it belongs to a large carnivore: why did you even have to ask? Image from Roger Benson of Cambridge University, and published by National Geographic. (And for you Yanks out there who refuse to use the metric system, 30 cm = 12 inches.)

On the other hand (or foot), a single track belonging to a dinosaur, especially of a carnivorous one, can also get some attention, but its fame may not last as long. For example, once I had found a couple of (not-so-good) large theropod tracks at the Dinosaur Dreaming dig site in Victoria, Australia in 2006, dig crews thereafter were on the alert for other tracks. So they started looking for something they previously did not think was there. (You never know until you look, even if sometimes you still haven’t found what you’re looking for.) And what do you know, they found one, and it was from a large theropod dinosaur.

A single dinosaur track, probably of a large theropod dinosaur, found by volunteer Tyler Lamb at the Dinosaur Dreaming dig site in February 2007. And I mean, at the site, only a few meters away from where they were digging for dinosaur bones. Volunteers had been walking over it for about 14 years and had not noticed it, because, you know, it wasn’t a body fossil. Scale = 10 cm (4 inches).

Once a body fossil of a large carnivorous dinosaur was unveiled three years later, though, this track was not mentioned at all in news reports as previous evidence of large theropod dinosaurs living in that area at about that time. How fleeting the fame.

No, I’m not jealous of body fossils and the flashbulbs, red-carpet walks, bling, and swag bags they receive: I just want equal time for trace fossils. Consequently, in recent years I have been acting more and more as an “ichnoevangelist,” trying to convert the Great Unwashed who have not felt the daily transformative power of trace fossils in their lives. (As for paleontologists who study chemical fossils: sorry, you’re on your own.) I have even created my own “religion,” The Church of Ichnology, which has its holy trinity of Substrate, Anatomy, and Behavior (amen). (More will be said about that topic in a future post. But for now, also file away that this “church” requires drinking, dancing, and lots of cursing about body fossils.)

So let’s say you love body fossils, especially of dinosaurs, and are amenable to an ichnological conversion; in other words, you’re paleontologically bi-curious. Why should you care about dinosaur trace fossils, and especially dinosaur tracks? Let me count the ways:

• Dinosaur tracks are typically found in the exact same place where a dinosaur was living. Where you see a dinosaur track, that’s where it was walking (or, less commonly, running). On the other hand, bodies and bones can be moved far away from where an animal actually lived. For instance, where I live, in the state of Georgia (U.S.A.), all dinosaur body fossils there have been found in Cretaceous rocks that formed in shallow-marine environments. Yet all dinosaurs lived in terrestrial environments. This means these dinosaurs died on land, then their bodies were washed out to sea, where their bones were finally buried.

Close-up of a surface of Cretaceous rock that used to be soft sediments deposited on a lakeshore about 98 million years ago, in Queensland, Australia. See any dinosaur tracks? If you do, then you know those dinosaurs were living on that lakeshore (however temporarily).

• Dinosaur tracks are far more abundant than their bones. My esteemed colleagues who study dinosaur bones and make regular appearances on Oprah (or, more likely, The Colbert Report) will begrudgingly concede this point if I press them on it. Dinosaur ichnologists just have lots more fossils to work with. Of course, when you think about it, it’s not even fair to make the comparison. After all, one dinosaur could have made tens of thousands of tracks during its lifetime, but it’s various body parts may or may not have made it into the fossil record. The odds are lopsidedly stacked in favor of a paleontologist finding dinosaur tracks, not bones. Epic win for dinosaur ichnologists!

Panorama of Lark Quarry tracksite in Queensland, Australia from the mid-Cretaceous age (about 98 million-year-old). See all of those indentations on the surface? Almost all of those are dinosaur tracks. Number of dinosaur tracks on this 210-square meter rock surface? About 3,300. Number of dinosaur bones on this same surface? Zero. I rest my case, however anecdotally.

• Dinosaur tracks are often in places where you don’t find their bones. Let’s say you’re a paleontologist and you want to find some dinosaur bones. So you start by looking at sedimentary rocks of the right ages, which would be from the Late Triassic through Late Cretaceous Periods, or about 225-65 million years old. You also want to look at rocks formed in the right environments, such as rivers or lakes. (Yes, I mentioned earlier how dinosaur bones might be in rocks formed in marine environments, but these are much more rare.) Lastly, you’d like a place with lots of exposed rock that is not covered by pesky vegetation.

 Why is this paleontologist (Tom Rich from the Museum of Victoria) looking for dinosaur bones along this dangerously slippery rocky platform inundated by smashing waves, and just below high cliffs that continually test gravitational theory by shedding excess boulders, which always seem to fall down instead of up? Could it be because these rocks represent the right age and right environments for dinosaurs, and are not covered by vegetation?

So let’s say you go down this checklist – check, check, check – and you still don’t find any bones. Well, you can blame this misfortune on the Great Goddess of Taphonomy, who decided that the dinosaur bones would not be deposited in those environments, or that they would be deposited, but have since been dissolved by acidic groundwater or otherwise had their elements recycled.

So you have places without dinosaur bones that really should have them? Start looking for dinosaur tracks instead. You just might find them.

• Dinosaur tracks can tell you exactly how a dinosaur was behaving on a given day. If you look at any given dinosaur bone, it can tell you something about how that animal lived. But this exercise often requires a lot of speculation, and usually fails to provide any “snapshots” of behavior on a given day in the Mesozoic Era, unless it has cool trace fossils in it, like toothmarks or carrion-beetle borings in it (which, incidentally, were not made by the dinosaur that owned the bone). In contrast, dinosaur tracks tell you the type of dinosaurs, their approximate sizes, how dinosaurs moved, how fast they were moving, when they stopped for a rest, if they had an injury, whether they were moving together, and other such important information that either supplements or surpasses information that can be gained from bones.

 See those big, round impressions in Cretaceous rocks of Western Australia (near Broome)? Those are sauropod dinosaur tracks, and they indicate a probable presence of titanosaurs in an area where their bones have not been found (yet). My wife Ruth (a.k.a. Hallelujah Truth), a true convert to the Church of Ichnology, gazes upon these tracks with genuine awe.

So now that all of you are members of the Church of Ichnology and believe in the restorative and redemptive value of dinosaur tracks, you will appreciate next week’s topic all the more: the mystery of Lark Quarry – one of the most important dinosaur tracksites in the world – and how it was originally interpreted, then recently reinterpreted. Best of all, it’s in central Queensland, mates. See you then and there, but in the meantime, happy tracking!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Clancy, Matilda, and Banjo: Australian Dinosaurs, Living Large

“Discoveries are the currency of science.” When I heard renowned biologist and Pulitzer-Prize winning science author E.O. Wilson say these words several years ago during a visit to Emory University, I have reminded myself since of how the continuing discoveries of dinosaurs and other fossils probably reflect the most cost-effective way for science to progress. And when it comes to paleontology, few places in the world have yielded better “bang for the buck” than Australia.
“G’Day! My name is Banjo. I have come here to chew bubblegum, and kick bum. And I'll all out of bubblegum.” Fantastic artwork by Travis Tischler, Australian Age of Dinosaurs.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Australian Age of Dinosaurs is Now

What is happening right now in Australia with dinosaurs is akin to another time and place on the other side of the world: the 19th century and the American West. 

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Cretaceous Worlds of Queensland, Part V: Fossil Lives in Downtown Winton

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.

“Excuse me! Pardon me! We really must be going!” There’s something about a large theropod walking through your neighborhood that invokes a bit of anxiety in a wee dinosaur.

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.

That’s not a femur.

That’s a femur!

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.

“Sea-wasp nests”? No on all of those words, but they’re still very interesting trace fossils. These were made by Pleistocene weevil larvae, and found in 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!

The theropod track on the sign would not lie: when you’re in Winton, you’re on Australia’s Dinosaur Trail.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Cretaceous Worlds of Queensland, Part IV: Ages of Winton

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

Cretaceous Worlds of Queensland, Part III: Hughenden, on the Edge of the Cretaceous

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).