Around 130 million years ago, dinosaurs made their way through the wet sands of a river delta in what is now the remote Kimberley region of western Australia. When the tide goes out along the beaches of the Dampier Peninsula today, it reveals thousands of their massive fossil footprints preserved in sandstone rock.
Now, the region has revealed an extraordinarily diverse array of dinosaur tracks along a single 25-km (15.5-mile) stretch of the Daimler Peninsula. Thousands of fossil footprints left between 127 and 140 million years ago, including tracks from 21 different types of dinosaurs, line the beaches near Walmadany (James Price Point).
Some of the armored dino tracks belong to stegosaurus, and are the only confirmed evidence of that particular dinosaur in Australia. Not only that—among the tracks left by the enormous four-legged plant eaters known as sauropods (a group that includes brachiosaurus and brontosaurus, among others) was one print measuring nearly 5 feet 9 inches (1.75 meters) long. It’s believed to be the largest dino track ever recorded, topping the previous record of 1.15 meters (or nearly 3 feet 9 inches). Scientists discovered that giant footprint, the largest known carnivorous dinosaur track, in Bolivia last July.
“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,” the lead archaeologist on the project, Steve Salisbury of the University of Queensland, said in a statement. “It’s such a magical place—Australia’s own Jurassic Park, in a spectacular wilderness setting. ”
Though Australia has many rocks old enough to contain dinosaur fossils, relatively few have been found on the continent. This is due to its predominantly low, flat terrain, which makes exposed fossils vulnerable to erosion by the elements. Up until now, most of Australia’s dino fossils have been found on the eastern side of the continent, and are considerably younger (between 115 and 90 million years old).
Local indigenous people in the Kimberley region have claimed the trackway as part of their oral history tradition, likely for thousands of years. As Salisbury explained to BBC News, the aborigines see the fossilized footprints as part of a creation myth based on a figure called Marala, the emu-man. “Wherever [Marala] went, “ Salisbury said, “he left behind three-toed tracks that now we recognize as the tracks of meat-eating dinosaurs.”
In fact, it was members of a local aboriginal community, the Goolarabooloo, who first told the scientists it was there. In 2008, after the Australian government announced plans to build a liquid natural gas facility in the area, Goolarabooloo leaders asked Salisbury to document the beach tracks, hoping evidence of dinosaur fossils in the region would lead the government to stop the project.
Between 2011 and 2016, the team of paleontologists from Queensland University and James Cook University spent some 400 hours recording details of the tracks. Using a technique called 3-D photogrammetry, they took pictures of the prints from different angles and used the images to build accurate models to measure and examine. They also took silicone peels of many of the tracks, which can be used to make casts to display in museums.
The researchers recently published their findings in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. Meanwhile, development of the gas plant in the region was halted after project leaders concluded it was not economically feasible.