Podcast: Saving Australia’s Jurassic Park

3 April 2018

UQ palaeontologist Dr Steve Salisbury has helped unearth thousands of dinosaur footprints along a single stretch of coastline in Western Australia. He and his team braved sharks, crocodiles, massive tides and the threat of development to unveil the most diverse assemblage of dinosaur tracks in the world. Welcome to Australia’s Jurassic Park.


Steve Salisbury: This is the only part of Australia where we get a look at life during the age of dinosaurs 130 million years ago. So it’s kind of exciting because it is literally tracking dinosaurs and when you start to do it, you really do get a sense that you’re walking with dinosaurs.

Belinda McDougall: Welcome to Australia’s Jurassic Park and welcome to UQ ChangeMakers, a podcast series where we interview some of the most inspiring and influential members of the UQ community. My name is Belinda McDougall.

Katie Rowney: And I’m Katie Rowney. In this first episode of UQ ChangeMakers we chat with Dr Steve Salisbury, a palaeontologist and senior lecturer at UQ’s School of Biological Sciences.

Belinda: Steve has helped unearth and identify thousands of dinosaur footprints along a single stretch of coastline in Western Australia, ensuring these tracks are not lost to the ages just like the magnificent creatures that left them. Steve, welcome.

Steve: Hello.

Belinda: Now Steve, can you tell us more about this incredible part of Australia and these amazing dinosaur tracks?

Steve: So this area it’s in the Kimberley of north Western Australia, probably the closest town that everyone would be aware of up there is Broome. So it’s a really unique part of the country, still pretty much pristine wilderness through a lot of it and the area where we did a lot of work is about 50 kilometres north of Broome on, literally, unspoiled wild beaches. So what we did up there was document dinosaur tracks that are preserved in rocks of the Broome sandstone. So these are about 130 million years old and they occur right along the coastline for, probably, nearly 100 kilometres, from south of Broome around Roebuck Bay and then north through to where we did our work around a place called Walmadan or James Price Point. And these rocks are only exposed at, or during the low tides; they occur in intertidal zones. So on one side you’ve got red sands of the desert, on the other side you’ve got this pristine turquoise ocean, and in between is a beach. Then when the water retreats, all these reefs are exposed that are covered in dinosaur tracks. So we spent probably, nearly, sort of five or six years documenting these tracks, we’re still going there’s so many of them. Um and we’ve just started to sort of share a lot of our research with the greater world now.

Belinda: So what types of dinosaurs left these tracks and how have they been so well preserved?

Steve: So you’ve got to remember this, um, was a very different Australia 130 million years ago when the dinosaur tracks were made. So back then, Australia didn’t really exist as a single land mass it was part of Gondwana. It’s a great southern super-continent that comprised Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica, South America, Africa, and India and Madagascar. So back then Australia is part of east Gondwana, it was probably much further south than it is today and the Kimberley, that particular part of east Gondwana um, was a large basin from which rivers that flowed from the north – there was a big mountain chain to the north of the Kimberley – um, they flowed down to the south and opened up into a vast sort of floodplain and delta. And it’s in that system that all the dinosaurs were living and in a lot of areas leaving their tracks. As best we can work out, this sort of floodplain area was very sandy; it’s a very sand dominated river, so there were lots of sandbars and sort of interwoven channels. Um, and periodically the area seems to have flooded and after the floods have subsided, just like they do now in places like the southeast, um, around Queensland, you know you get a layer of silt left behind. And dinosaurs have come out and you know we don’t really know why the dinosaur crossed the sandbar, but they’ve walked over these muddy sandbars and left their tracks and then in a few areas we’ve been fortunate in that those tracks have been buried by more sand to preserve them for millions of years to come and now they’re slowly emerging as the surf starts to erode those rocks. So it’s you know, a unique set of circumstances to get them form in the first place and then when you think about it, it’s just as unique that, you know we’re living at a time now where there a set of circumstances that are exposing them for us to see.

Belinda: What kinds of species, or kinds of dinosaurs were walking across that sandbar?

Steve: Took us a long time to work it out because there are literally thousands of tracks and very little in the way of science had been done in this area before and in the end we settled on there being 21 different types of dinosaurs being represented by tracks. Which was really exciting because that makes this particular area um, the most diverse dinosaur track fauna in the world. So nowhere else in the world can you go and see as many different types of dinosaur tracks preserved in the rocks. The Kimberley has the most anywhere in the world so, when we realized that, I mean that heightens the significance even more. So among the 21 different types there are sort of four main groups of dinosaurs represented. There are meat eating, theropod dinosaurs so things like T-rex and Velociraptor, there are sort of five or six kinds of those represented by tracks. Probably the most abundant tracks in the track fauna are tracks made by sauropod dinosaurs so the big four-legged, long-necked, long-tailed dinosaurs, got at least six different types of sauropod tracks and there are many thousands of those out there, they’re everywhere. And then there are tracks of ornithopod dinosaurs, so these are predominantly two-legged, plant-eating dinosaurs so things like Muttaburrasaurus are ornithopods and we’ve got five different types of ornithopod tracks. And the group that I got most excited about while we were there are the thyreophoran or armoured dinosaurs, got five or six different types of thyreophoran dinosaur tracks there too. So all up it points to really diverse dinosaur fauna living in this part of Australia 130 million years ago.

Belinda: Does it tell us something that we didn’t know about Australia, back 130 million years ago?

Steve: Well the thing is, and this is what made it really exciting for us, is this is the only part of Australia where we get a look at life during the age of dinosaurs 130 million years ago. All the dinosaurs that have known from the east coast are predominantly much younger, so between sort of about 115, 100 or and 90 million years ago so these are sort of 20 to 30 million years older than the majority of dinosaurs that people would know about. And we literally had no idea what sort of dinosaurs were going to be there so this is our only window on Australia during that time insofar as the dinosaur fauna went. To most people when you think of a dinosaur track you think of a giant bird track and you know dinosaurs are birds um, or birds are dinosaurs however you want to put it, um, so the majority of them do have three long toes and maybe a fourth one pointing backwards, but that’s just one group of dinosaurs, the theropod dinosaurs. There are lots of other dinosaurs out there and they’ve all got different shaped feet. So to be able to identify their tracks you need to have a good understanding of the foot anatomy of lots of different types of dinosaurs and you’ve also got to be able to spot the tracks in this fairly challenging setting because, as everyone will know who’s gone down to a beach and mucked around in rock pools and stuff, it’s a very dynamic sort of area in terms of how rocks can be eroded. You get lots of potholes and puddles and all sorts of weird shapes, so we had to sort of look through those and identify shapes that could represent tracks and in many instances they’re tracks that have never been seen before and made by really, you know, presumably unusual looking dinosaurs. So it did take quite a bit of time for us to get our eye in, to spot the tracks, and you learn as you do the work, how best to do it because you discover really quickly that light is really important so, getting it right with the tides was one thing but then also doing it in a way that maximizes horizontal light. If the sun’s directly above the rocks, there are no shadows cast so it’s hard to spot undulations in the rocks that might be tracks. So we like to either work in the morning or in the afternoon when there are, the softer light and longer shadows and the rock really comes alive a lot more during those times of the day. So, put all that together and then getting out into these remote areas and out onto these reefs wandering around, you really do feel like you’re tracking dinosaurs, we’re wandering around trying to find traces of dinosaurs and in a lot of instances when you do find them, they look as if they were made yesterday or even, you know, more recently you just kind of look up and think, “Is that dinosaur going to be around here somewhere?”

Belinda: Did your mind start to see those dinosaurs wandering through these areas?

Steve: Well once we started to understand the landscape a lot more we realized that, you know, on one hand you could think here I am, walking around among some rock pools in the Kimberley looking at the ocean and the sand and stuff but then you can also step back and say this surface that I’m looking at is an ancient landscape. And it essentially is, so those rocks were walked over by dinosaurs and we see undulations in the surface that the dinosaurs have had to negotiate as they walk along. So quickly we began to sort of imagine it as it was and that helped in terms of being able to find the tracks and spot the tracks. So it’s kind of exciting because it is literally tracking dinosaurs and when you start to do it, you really do get a sense that you’re walking with dinosaurs.

Katie: Speaking of walking with dinosaurs, what were your first reactions to the Jurassic Park movie?

Steve: Well I remember, I think I was about 20 when Jurassic Park, the first one, came out and I was so excited. As, as were lots of other 20 year old palaeontologists just like me and I think it, that movie and that franchise has really inspired a whole generation of palaeontologists and just people generally about dinosaurs because what it has done is bring them to life on the big screen in a way that hadn’t been done in the past. So you know, instead of us trying to imagine dinosaurs you can just kick back and enjoy them, eating some popcorn um, so we hadn’t been able to do that until then. Um, saying that though, knowing dinosaurs really well, I couldn’t help but watch Jurassic Park and sort of cringe a few times at some of the things that were in there. But at the end of it, at the end of it all it’s just like well it’s a movie you know it doesn’t have to be 100% correct so I just let it go most of the time and just enjoy it for what it is and munch on the popcorn.

Belinda: So you’ve had your own dramatic discoveries in Western Australia that are worthy of the big screen, can you tell us more about that?

Steve: One of them was caught on film, which was kind of exciting. So, um, we’d been doing you know a few years of work up there and we had ABC Catalyst come up and film a story with us and we were in one particular spot talking about something or other and then a few of us just realized this huge depression that we were all sort of standing around was in fact a gigantic dinosaur track. Um, and it was so big, the reason we hadn’t noticed it was it was bigger than our sort of search image, we hadn’t been looking for anything of this size so literally walked past it probably a hundred times. But on this particular day, you know, probably the light was right, our mind was in the right place and we saw it for what is was and then very quickly realized that it was in fact a gigantic dinosaur track and it was the biggest dinosaur track in the world and it was kind of, you know for us, sort of standing there in front of a film crew declaring that we’d just discovered the biggest dinosaur track in the world we were sort of a bit hesitant to do that um, but it was pretty exciting. You know, we’ve since described it and made ourselves much more sure of it but that was a great moment. The only dinosaurs that get to the size, or anywhere near the size, of an animal that could leave a track that big are the sauropods. So this particular track is 1.7 metres long, so you know, a lot of people could fit in it, it’s like a bathtub. Um, so that’s the foot. The hand is much smaller, the foot’s generally sort of elongated; long heel area and then often some toes at one end. The hand is much smaller and typically leaves like a kidney shaped impression. So this particular track we had a hand and a footprint. The footprint was the really exciting part of it just because of its size and from that, we can give a rough estimate for the size of the animal that made it. Could have been anywhere from between sort of 25 to 40 metres long um, probably in the realm of one of the biggest dinosaurs who have ever walked the planet, and it walked in the Kimberley.

The other one was when we [came] across a trackway that had been made by some sort of stegosaur. Stegosaurs are four-legged dinosaurs, um, they’re generally like, sort of, car sized or bigger and probably the most characteristic thing about them is that they’re armoured with either lots of plates running down their back and/or spines, usually in the tail but some of them have got spines on their shoulders. So they’re members of the armoured dinosaur group, the thyreophora. One of the groups of dinosaurs that we’ve got no other evidence for in Australia other than these tracks in the Kimberley, are stegosaurs. So, you’re not expecting to see any evidence of stegosaurs in Australia at all and to come down to this rock platform and see trackway that looked incredibly fresh where, you know, probably an animal I guess the size of a big four-wheel drive had walked up and down negotiating this slope, and it actually sort of slipped a little bit as it had gone down the other side, and realizing that it was an Australian stegosaur that had left tracks very different to any other sorts of stegosaur tracks around the world, I mean that was, that was amazing seeing that. And then we’ve since realized those tracks, that type of track, is quite common in this area, and stegosaurs were a really important part of Australia’s dinosaur fauna at that time.

Katie: During the course of your career, have you discovered any dinosaurs?

Steve: So one of the most exciting ones that I’ve been involved in, um, was renaming, Australia’s most complete dinosaur. This is a little armoured dinosaur formerly known as minmi, from Richmond in north Queensland that myself and one of our PhD students, Lucy Leahey, worked on and realized was not minmi so we gave it a new name, kunbarrasaurus which means “shield lizard”.

Katie: Kunbarrasaurus is one of my favourites; do you have a favourite dinosaur?

Steve: I think I really, I really like kunbarrasaurus, I mean it’s sort of a little bit neglected in Australia, people forget just what an amazing fossil kunbarrasaurus is represented by – it’s a newly complete dinosaur with the skin and everything there, so spectacular and really unusual which is definitely a theme that comes up again and again with Australian dinosaurs. So it sort of encapsulates a lot of what Australian dinosaurs can represent, it’s really unique, and it’s kind of cute and a bit goofy as well and I like that. 

Katie: Can you tell me what a day in the life would be like for you and your team when you’re out there working on the tracks?

Steve: So because the tracks occur in the intertidal zone, everything we do up there is dictated by the tides. So just planning a field trip involves looking carefully at tides so we generally tend to have our trips up there coincide with spring tides, so it’s usually either a full moon or a new moon. So that means we have um, more time to get to some of the areas that are underwater most of the year. And in this part of Australia you’ve got tides of up to ten metres, so it’s really crucial that we get it right. So there’ll usually be, I don’t know, half a dozen good tidal windows a year. So we have to sort of coincide our trips with that, we obviously don’t want to be there during the middle of the monsoon, in the wet season, and it’s really hot and horrible. So it’s usually we try to get it in the middle of the year and during those good tides and then when we’re there, um, we have to really maximize the time we get out on the reefs to coincide with the tides. So usually we’ll be up, sort of well before sunrise getting ready, and try to be out on the beach as the sun comes up and as the tide goes out, to track dinosaurs. And then we’ll get about three or four hours in any one area before the tide turns and starts to come in really quickly. While we are doing the tracking, it is fairly intensive work because we really want to utilize every spare second we’ve got on the rocks.

Belinda: So working with the tides and being so close to the water, have you ever encountered some modern day dinosaurs?

Steve: Yeah well, I mean the Kimberley in northern tropical Australia is home to you know crocodiles and sharks and things and being out there on this remote coastline, in the water, on the reefs, and doing stuff as the tide’s coming in and going out, at first we were a bit blasé about it and you know, it was all just good fun kind of wading through the water and doing your thing as the tide came in or out. But I remember one day when we, you know, had had a particularly productive morning and had found ourselves kind of trapped on this little island of rock as the tide washed in, um, and having to wade back literally like you know water up to our chests and backpacks and things over our head, through these channels to get back to shore. And that afternoon we were sitting up on the cliff with a friend who was camped there and he pulled his camera out and said, “Oh you guys, did you realize some of the other things that were out there this morning as you were coming back in?” And we were like, “No.” And he showed us a photograph of what looked like I reckon a three or a four metre Indo-Pacific crocodile that had swum in through the channel that we’d been wandering up as the tide had come in. So it’d been out around, swimming around the outer reefs while the tides were out and as the tide had come in it had used the tide to come in up the very channel that we had been wading through to get to the beach. And the beach that we’d sat on, you know, a few hours before drying off, was the exact beach that this croc had been basking on later in the day. So, that, you know we got a good laugh out of it, but also realized you know, we needed to be a little bit more careful and it really sort of changed our attitude to, you know, how we needed to go about things. And it’s not just the crocodiles, you do see quite a lot of sharks up there as well so it’s made us much more aware of the tides, not just for the need to get to the tracks, but also not to get caught out.

Belinda: These tracks have been well known to the local indigenous, um, community for centuries really. When was it brought to your attention or UQ’s attention and how was it brought to our attention?

Steve: Yeah so a really important part, and I think quite significant part, of what goes into these tracks in this part of the area, of Australia and their significance is that they’re interwoven into the Dreamtime mythology of the indigenous people of the Kimberley. So they’ve probably been known about for thousands of years I suspect. There, in that part of Australia, one of the important creation beings in the Dreamtime is the Emu Man, Marala, and stories that relate to him and the coastline and the country up there, trace where the dinosaur tracks occur. So wherever there are large, three-toed dinosaur tracks in the rocks, these are seen as part of Marala’s wanderings across the country at the time that it was created. So there’s a lot of knowledge as to where these tracks are and also, what they represent. So we’re able to, you know luckily, tap into that and the reason we got invited up there was because these tracks were seen as being under threat from large scale industrial development and for a long time, people in this area had kept quiet about the tracks and that was seen as the best way to protect them I mean they’ve been custodians of this country, various people have done it, for a long time and part of looking after it has been keeping it safe and for the last few hundred years that’s been keeping quiet about it. But when this area was selected for a really massive LNG (liquid natural gas) processing facility, it became very apparent that a lot of these tracks were under threat and that was when we got invited up to come and scientifically document.

Belinda: What was it like working with the local indigenous community, hearing those stories and then seeing the evidence of what created those stories?

Steve: Well for a long time, um, access to these tracks and these areas had been quite sensitive because of their cultural significance. Many of us in the sort of ‘dinosaur community’ knew that there were dinosaur tracks up in the Kimberley but you know you needed to be invited and taken out to be able to see them. So getting invited for me was really exciting, you know, I jumped at the opportunity. But then getting there and seeing them and realizing this deep connection that people had, that was fantastic and I worried at first that my interpretation of the tracks would be in conflict with the traditional interpretation but, I was really heartened by the fact that it was all taken onboard. It was just another way of seeing what was there and a way of that country sort of sharing its values with people whether it be scientists or the general public or members of the indigenous community. It was seen as this information coming out for all the right reasons and thankfully that work eventually resulted in the development being cancelled and the area being national heritage listed because of the tracks. So it was great to be able to be involved in something that resulted in it being saved and conserved for future generations.

Katie: Speaking of those future generations getting to experience the tracks, have you ever taken any of your family out to experience them?

Steve: I have, I got to take my two young children out last year and they had a ball. It was so good you know every now and then I’d turn around from doing my own work, measuring and taking photos and things, to see them just sort of casually playing, building sandcastles and stuff sitting in dinosaur tracks. And I mean they knew what they were looking at but for them it just became a normal part of the day going out and tracking dinosaurs and seeing all these dinosaur tracks.

Belinda: Now you mentioned the tides and the tides are washing over the top of these tracks. How do you preserve them because that’s got to be eroding what tracks that you’ve discovered?

Steve: Yeah it is I mean, just like any coastline it’s a very dynamic environment and just in the short time that we’ve been going there I’ve seen entire beaches get buried in sand. Other areas, rock emerge where for, you know, decades there was just perfect white sand and also rock get destroyed by the ocean. So the ocean’s incredibly powerful and the consequence of that is that the coastline is constantly changing and of course tracks are being destroyed but also new tracks are emerging all the time. So what we ended up doing was a lot of digital documentation, so in addition to making sort of peels with silicon to replicate tracks, we would also take lots of photographs and do laser scanning to capture them in a digital 3D format so that they’re forever preserved like that which is great for science because it means other people can look at them and start to do research on them the way we have. But it’s also good in that it allows other people to see them because you know it’s hard to get, it’s expensive to go to Broome um, and a lot of these areas you know you’d be hard pressed getting there in the first place let alone finding the dinosaur tracks. But this is a way we can bring those dinosaur tracks to your TV screen or your computer or in the museum and people can look at them and experience them in a nearly real way. One of the biggest challenges that we face up there is the fact that the tracks are underwater half the time, so you can’t go about documenting them the same way that you would in other areas where you can pull out a tape measure and lay out a grid and then sit there and just take your time taking notes and doing your stuff. Up there if you do that, you’re going to get washed away. So what drones have allowed us to do, is very quickly document areas where there are tracks but most importantly get above them. So we can’t take a cherry picker out or set up a ladder or something to see all these tracks but with drones and light aircraft, we can fly over them at whatever height we need to, to be able to see them and that’s been a really valuable tool for us in terms of documenting what’s there and the extent of the tracks and it’s allowed us to discover a lot of new tracks.

Belinda: You talk about extreme situations especially up there with crocodiles and the tides and sharks and things like that – has there been any other areas that you’ve worked in that have been also extreme or challenging?

Steve: Yeah well I’ve done quite a bit of work now in Antarctica. Um, as we mentioned before, Antarctica was connected to Australia right through the age of dinosaurs so if anywhere on the planet is likely to have clues that might help us better understand Australian dinosaurs, it’s going to be Antarctica. The only problem with Antarctica is it’s Antarctica so it’s covered in snow and ice most of the time and is really hard to get to. Um, I’ve been fortunate enough to have teamed up with other palaeontologists as part of a project funded through the National Science Foundation and the US Antarctic Program, that has allowed us to get down to the Antarctic Peninsula specifically to look for dinosaurs. And I think probably the part of that that, you know, that might sound pretty far out there but the biggest challenge is getting there and doing it. I mean really lucky in that we had, you know, whole icebreaker at our disposal and two helicopters and teams of camp managers and stuff to allow us to do the work that we did. And down there because so little palaeontological survey work has been done, it’s all new ground and to start trying to find stuff, we literally just have to go ashore and wander around and kick rocks.

Belinda: When you talk about Antarctica, was it really extreme? What sort of temperatures, what sort of conditions were you working in?

Steve: You know, a group of half a dozen paleontologists and a camp manager to survive in Antarctica for five weeks in a camp, you need a lot of stuff. So, I mean we’d all have specially designed tents that could withstand the conditions there, we all had to have the right sort of clothing, we had to have food and capabilities to cook it and eat it um, so it’s a huge setup. Um, but I was glad that we did have all that gear because we experienced all sorts of conditions and I think the thing you learn in Antarctica is that the conditions can go from one extreme to the next, literally in an instant. So some days we’d be there, you know, in t-shirts for a little bit, sort of chipping away at the rocks and joking and sipping drinks and eating apples and then you know, that afternoon a squall would come through and it’d be you know, minus 20 wind chill factor and you know tents are virtually on the edge of getting blown over and you’ve got every bit of clothing you can image on, um, huddled together you know around the single little heater that we had in our mess tent, hoping is this going to stop? Because when you’re there I think, you know, the scary thing is there’s no quick way out, if you don’t like it or if something happens um, it could be days or weeks before you’re out and everything is okay. So you have to be of the mindset that you’re going to be able to make it through whatever comes and you know, Antarctica throws it all at you.

Katie: Steve how did you begin you career? Have you always been interested in dinosaurs?

Steve: I don’t know if you can have a career when you’re six years old but I’m one of those kids that was, I was always obsessed with dinosaurs and I just kept it going and now I’m really fortunate that I do it as part of my job. I don’t consider coming to work here as work because I get to sit there and write about dinosaurs, talk to people about dinosaurs, look at dinosaurs in my lab and plan dinosaur expeditions I mean that’s not work, it’s fun.

Katie: Do you find that there are any common myths about dinosaurs you’re always correcting? For example, people always seem to think that humans and dinosaurs were around at the same time or they think that, you know we’ve recently learned that T-rex could never play guitar because he’s got tiny little arms.

Steve: Probably, one of the biggest myths about dinosaurs that I have to keep reminding people about all the time is that they never actually went extinct. So, if people think dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, I tell you to look out the window and say hi to that magpie or to the brush turkey that’s out there. Dinosaurs are still around in the form of birds and there are more birds today, ten thousand species of birds, than there are mammals. So to say that the age of dinosaurs ended 65 million years ago and since then we’ve been in the age of mammals, is a myth because we’re still in the age of dinosaurs they’re just cute and fluffy and they make nice songs, um, but they’re still out there. So I like to always remind people of the fact that birds are dinosaurs and, no they didn’t all go extinct 65 million years ago.

Belinda: Thanks for taking us along on your adventures today Steve. We’re going to close the episode with a short segment called Spare Change in which we get to know you a bit better with some rapid fire questions. Here we go. First of all, what’s the one fact that most listeners wouldn’t know about you?

Steve: I like to spoon, and by that I mean carve spoons out of bits of wood.

Belinda: What is the one question that you’re sick and tired of being asked?

Steve: “Did you see that documentary last week about the pharaohs?”

Belinda: If you could go back in time by ten years, what advice would you give your younger self?

Steve: Get it together and get things finished on time.

Belinda: Good advice. Who or what is your biggest influence in life?

Steve: I think probably my dad he was always really good at being organised and taking lots of notes.

Belinda: And finally, if you had to choose a piece of music that would best describe you, which song would you play?

Steve: These days I kind of think of um, ‘Rush to Relax’ by Eddy Current Suppression Ring because I always feel like I’m in a rush to get to the weekend and getting through all my dinosaur stuff it’s not easy sometimes.

Belinda: That was the first episode of UQ ChangeMakers. If you want to learn more about Dr Steve Salisbury’s work visit our website at uq.edu.au/changemakers I’m Belinda McDougall.

Katie: And I’m Katie Rowney. Our podcast was produced by Jessica Mcgaw and Michael Jones. If you enjoyed this episode tell your friends of colleagues, leave a review on iTunes, or email us at changemakers@uq.edu.au if you want to create change, tune in next time where we interview another inspiring UQ expert, thanks for listening.