Sunday, October 28, 2007

Walking with dinosaurs

When I moved to Texas, I did so with trepidation. I was used to the welcoming, green outdoors of the Pacific Northwest, and spending many summer weekends enjoying the crisp air of the North Cascades or the Olympic rainforest, walking on soft pine needles. So the extreme harshness of the Texas climate, which rarely says “come out and play” didn’t appeal too much to me.

That said though, I found that Texas has a range of natural terrains and wildlife, from complete, arid desert to rolling hills with rivers and lush forests. And what’s more, some of them are surprisingly close to the Dallas-Fortworth urban sprawl. A week ago, we spent a day in one of these often overlooked jewels just a stones throw from Dallas, the Dinosaur valley state park, where some of the world’s finest collections of dinosaur fossils, prints and tracks had been discovered.

When we reached the park, the tiny visitor center disappointed me, but only for a moment. The little display room was surprisingly superbly informative. I knew that a long time ago, the region that is now the gulf coast was part of the ocean. But I didn’t realize that what is today Dallas (and hundreds of miles from the coast) was once part of a large, shallow sea, or lagoon. Now fossils usually are hard to find, and it is even harder to find prints or tracks left behind millions of years ago. The tracks found in this park were mostly made about 150 million years ago, in the Cretaceous era. The majority of the tracks found here belong to two different types of dinosaurs, three-toed meat eating theropods called Acrocanthosaurus, and huge prints of giant sauropod herbivores called Pleurocoelus. Interestingly, outside the park visitor center are life-size sculptures of the more celluloid friendly Tyrannosaurus rex and the giant brontosaurus. A serendipitous combination of soil and rock compositions of the region and climate allowed the prints of the dinosaurs to be preserved. Limestone, sandstone and mudstone gradually deposited in the region, where the theropods and sauropods perhaps migrated through, or came for food or prey. They left their prints on this limey mud, which was gently covered up by different sediment. Millions of years later, the Plauxy river (a tributary of the Brazos) flowed by, and slowly disloged some of the other sediment, revealing the dinosaur tracks for all of us to see, while other tracks were found later, by human excavation.

The visitor center nicely explained how these tracks were formed, how they were discovered, and also outlined the various timelines as well as a description of the formation of continents from pangea through gondwana to present times. In addition, the visitor center described the geology of the region, and the types of fossils found in the region, including those of ancient marine life. All of this should be a part of all school curricula in geography and natural history, but unfortunately, I don’t think much of this is taught anymore. At least, some of the visitors there (particularly the kids) seemed surprised to read this. It seems like a huge amount of irreparable damage has been done by the Flintstones, misinformative Hollywood movies and persuasive religious brainwashing.

The “fall” weather was perfect for the park, since after a long summer the river was just a gentle stream. Most of the dinosaur tracks were found along the river, and the shallow water meant that we could see the prints beautifully through the slightly muddy water (though I don’t know how good my photography skills are in that shot). The water in the rivers deepest point was at best waist high, so it meant the setting was perfect for splashing about in, or standing perfectly still to watch curious tadpoles nibble your toes. Along the bank of the river, you can look at both the sauropod and theropod tracks, as well as a few points where the tail drag of a sauropod has been preserved. While looking at a print in a photograph hardly inspires awe, staring at a real footprint many times the size of my oversized, ugly feet was more than sufficient to put things in perspective. I’m pretty glad humans weren’t around when the dinosaurs were. I’ve seen elephant dung, and if these beasts produced ten times that amount in a single sitting, I don’t even want to imagine how the Cretaceous era must have smelt. Of course, there’s also the possibility of mistaking a little hole in the soil as a dinosaur track. But the little pamphlets at eh visitor center explain how to distinguish them, and once you see the real tracks, it is easy to distinguish them from natural erosion, with the clear absence of any distinct features. There’s some nice hiking to be done in the park as well, and if you’re lucky you might catch a glimpse of some of the endemic birds of this region as you walk on trails along the river or on the little wooded limestone hills. I also stumbled upon some gorgeous lizards along the trail that were so well camouflaged amongst the rocks that I would never have spotted them had they not been startled and run for their lives.

Last and certainly the least, being in Texas, it was hardly surprising that a few miles before the state park itself there was a little “creation evidence museum”. Here's a picture of it, that little building no bigger than a little barn, without a single car in the vast parking lot. I’m sure the devil came by one night and planted the fossils and prints all over the park, along with traces of marine creatures, not to mention the limestone soil itself, to fool us all into thinking this region was underwater centuries ago.


CuriousCat said...

Did you go into the creationist "museum"...just curious what they would have..

Wavefunction said...

Here's a YouTube piece on the creationist "museum"

Sunil said...

curiouscat.......i wanted to, but the rest of the group wanted no part of it, since it would be a "waste of time" when there was much more fun to be had hiking, so I didn't.

But, Ashutosh has linked to the grand master of all the creation "museums"....that's about 20 times the size of this little dump I saw, and even that only has some artwork and nothing else, so I think my friends and wife had a point about better things to do :-)

CuriousCat said...

@ Ashutosh : Thank you!!

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