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Largest-Known Dinosaur Footprint Discovered in Western Australia

The print was among twenty-one types left behind 130 million years ago

smithsonian.com

A group of scientists say they have discovered “Australia’s Jurassic Park” along the rocky shores of Kimberly, a remote region in Western Australia. As Jonathan Amos reports for the BBC, palaeontologists found a diverse collection of dinosaur footprints in the area—among them the largest dinosaur footprint known to science.

The research team, which was comprised of palaeontologists from the University of Queensland and James Cook University, recorded twenty-one types of fossil footprints stamped into the sandstones of the Dampier Peninsula. They recently published their findings in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

“There were five different types of predatory dinosaur tracks, at least six types of tracks from long-necked herbivorous sauropods, four types of tracks from two-legged herbivorous ornithopods, and six types of tracks from armoured dinosaurs,” lead researcher Steven Salisbury says in a statement. The tracks also provide the only known evidence of stegosaurs in Australia, Salisbury notes.

One footprint spanned five feet and nine inches in length, making it the largest dinosaur track ever discovered, according to CNN’s Joshua Berlinger. The print was left by a sauropod, a long-necked, four-legged herbivore.

Believed to be the largest dinosaur footprint yet found, this sauropod print is over 5 feet long. (Steve Salisbury/Queensland University/James Cook University)

Dinosaurs plodded through the region some 130 million years ago, leaving their heavy tracks in the wet sands of a river delta. Speaking to Amos at the BBC, Salisbury said that the fossilized prints provide the “only window” into the presence of dinosaurs in Western Australia. Relatively few traces of the prehistoric creatures have been found on the continent as a whole, since Australia’s low-lying plains leave fossils susceptible to erosion by the elements. 

Between 2011 and 2016, Salisbury and his team spent 400 hours examining and measuring the prints. They used photogrammetry to create models of the fossils, and took silicone casts of many of the prints, so they could be displayed in museums. The tracks were usually only visible at low tide, and researchers “braved sharks, crocodiles, massive tides and the threat of development” as they worked in the area, according to the University of Queensland statement. 

The prints had long gone unnoticed to palaeontologists, but indigenous lore has long attested to their existence. As Amos writes, the oral history of Australia’s indigenous people tells of a creator named Marala, or the Emu man, who left large, three-toed tracks as he walked across the land.

The Goolarabooloo people, a community of Aboriginal Australians, first alerted Salisbury to the presence of the footprints. The Goolarabooloo are the “Traditional Custodians” of Walmadany, an area of the Dampier Peninsula where most of the prints are concentrated. In 2008, the Australian government announced that it intended to build a gas processing plant in Walmadany. Goolarabooloo leaders hoped their land would be preserved if Salisbury could confirm that dinosaur fossils existed in the region.

“We needed the world to see what was at stake,” Goolarabooloo “Law Boss” Phillip Roe said, according to the University of Queensland Statement. 

Plans for the Walmadany gas plant were halted when a gas company decided that it would not be economically feasible to proceed with the project. The area has also been granted National Heritage status, according Ben Collins of ABC Australia.

Curious spectators will be able to explore the remarkable collection of footprints. Salisbury told Collins that one of the best ways to view the tracks is by walking the Lurujarri Heritage Trail—a nine-day hike that follows paths laid out in indigenous oral history. 

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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