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Australia confirms its own Jurassic Park with huge dinosaur footprints

The Goolarabooloo people of Western Australia had known of the dinosaur tracks for centuries. The find of the world's biggest dinosaur footprint has put Australia's west coast on the paleontologist map.

The 1.7-meter stegosaur footprints are the biggest of their kind yet discovered. They are just one of about 21 different kinds of dinosaur footprints found in the 25-kilometer (15.5-mile) stretch of the Dampier Peninsula coastline in northwest Australia.

Scientists published their findings on Monday. Paleontologists from the University of Queensland and James Cook University have been working with the area's Traditional Custodians, the Goolarabooloo people, since 2008.

The Goolarabooloo administration contacted the University of Queensland in 2008 when the area was named as the preferred site for a liquid gas processing precinct. "We needed the world to see what was at stake," Goolarabooloo Law Boss Phillip Roe said. The gas project collapsed in 2013 after the area was given a National Heritage listing in 2011.

"With 21 different types of tracks represented, that makes it the most diverse dinosaur footprint fauna in the world," lead scientist Steve Salisbury said. "Among the tracks is the only confirmed evidence for stegosaurs in Australia. There are also some of the largest dinosaur tracks ever recorded," he said. A dinosaur footprint reported found in the Mongolian desert last year measured 106 centimeters.

"Some of them are so big we didn't really notice them for some time because they're sort of beyond your search image for a dinosaur track," Salisbury admitted.

"It's such a magical place - Australia's own Jurassic Park, in a spectacular wilderness setting," Salisbury said.

Traditional Custodians

The Goolarabooloo people of the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia knew of the dinosaur tracks from an ancient song cycle which extends along the coast and inland for 450 kilometers. The song cycle is part of the cultural knowledge of the Goolarabooloo, known as Bugarregarre, the Dreaming. The community elders pass the knowledge down through the song cycle which recounts the creative journey of the ancestral beings who made the land and its people.

The area was a large river delta 130 million years ago, with dinosaurs crossing wet sandy areas between forests. They left thousands of tracks behind them on what are now sandstone rock platforms on a remote coastline known as Walmadan (James Price Point area) to its traditional owners, north of the city of Broome.

"It is extremely significant, forming the primary record of non-avian dinosaurs in the western half of the continent and providing the only glimpse of Australia's dinosaur fauna during the first half of the Early Cretaceous Period," Salisbury said.

Older tracks than the east coast

Salisbury said "Most of Australia's dinosaur fossils come from the eastern side of the continent, and are between 115 and 90 million years old.  The tracks in Broome are considerably older," as they were found in 127 to 140 million-year-old rocks.

"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 armored dinosaurs," Salisbury said.

The research has been published as the 2016 Memoir of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Salisbury fulfilled a life-long dream of finding Australian dinosaurs in 2001 through his involvement in the discovery of Australia's largest dinosaur, Elliot the sauropod. Salisbury hopes his work will attract people to visit the Walmadan area and see the footprints with Indigenous traditional owners of the land.

jm/kl (EFE, AFP)

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