Fossil Facts: India’s Own Desi Dinosaurs Were Bigger and Better Than The Ones In Jurassic Park

Two Indosuchus, Rajasaurus and Indosaurus (Photo Courtesy: Sergey Krasovskiy).
  • India’s natural history is filled with intriguing anecdotes figuring a whole host of characters ranging from Bangalore’s closest getaway Nandi Hills whose rocks are the oldest in India, 3.5 billion years old to be precise, to Dinosaurs that lived beyond the Jurassic age.

“Technically, much of the cast of Jurassic Park should not have been in it at all, but in another film called ‘Cretaceous Park!”, says author Pranay Lal in Indica: A Deep Natural History Of The Indian Subcontinent.

He compares the Cretaceous period - which lasted from 146 to 65 million years ago and saw the mighty reptiles rule the earth - with the Jurassic age (from 145 to 201 million years ago) which can only be credited with their arrival. Here is an excerpt.

Greater India had its own spectacular array of Cretaceous dinosaurs. The best and richest source of dinosaur fossils from this period is the fossil-rich sedimentary layer along the Narmada river, known as the Lameta formation, named after a bathing ghat which lies on the outskirts of Jabalpur, en route to the famous marble cliffs of Bhedaghat where the river drops as the Dhuandhaar Falls.

The Narmada originates in Amarkantak Hills in Anuppur district of Madhya Pradesh, and travels through Maharashtra and Gujarat, covering more than 1300 kilometres during its journey. For about 200 kilometres on the banks of the Narmada that flows through Jabalpur are marble and dolomitic cliffs that are overlain with sedimentary rocks, and these preserve fantastic fossils from this period.

If you want to go looking for fossils in this area, a starting point would be the hilly region around Jabalpur. This area was once flanked by the Narmada seaway to the west, with other rivers originating in the Vindhyas flowing around it. The ebb and flow of river water deposited copious quantities of silt and sediments which settled layer upon layer, preserving the fossils within them. It is therefore not surprising that the first dinosaur to be discovered in India, a sauropod called Titanosaurus indicus, was found in a massive sediment horizon in a place called Bara (meaning big) Simla Hill near the army cantonment in Jabalpur. Titanosaurs (or giant reptile) were the giant herbivores of the Cretaceous period. Fossils of bones and eggs of titanosaurs and some other dinosaurs have been found extensively along the Narmada.

Representation of Rajasaurus. Artwork titled: Silence in forest (Photo Copyright: Rodolfo Nogueira) Representation of Rajasaurus. Artwork titled: Silence in forest (Photo Copyright: Rodolfo Nogueira)

Predators like Rajasaurus and T-rex hunted by stealth and ambush and not just by ferocity. For many decades palæontologists have wondered what purpose could small arms like those in Rajasaurus or T-rex serve? Like many bipedal dinosaurs, these carnivores supported themselves by a dragging tail, quite like a tripod. When an incomplete skeleton of T-rex was first unearthed and later mounted, the museum found that its arms were very small relative to its body size, and some believed that these played no role in hunting or eating. Some speculated that the forelimbs were used for mating while others suggested that they provided stability and helped the animal get up if it ever fell. Some others suggested that the forelimbs were used to pin down the prey. It was also suggested that predators like Rajasaurus probably ripped off pieces of meat from carcases with lateral shakes of the head just like komodo dragons and crocodiles do today. But recent discoveries of bones and re-assembling of skeletons have shown that the forelimb bones of T-rex could raise heavy loads, perhaps as much as 200 kilograms and were nearly four times as powerful as those of an adult man. The strength of these arms, therefore, was useful for holding down prey and also for tearing up flesh when the prey was on the ground. More recently, T-rex arms are back in fashion. An Instagram celebrity said that selfie pictures make hands appear bent but make them look strangely elegant, quite like that of a T-rex. This trend is perhaps ‘a sign of reverse evolution’, as Marie Claire, a major society magazine, put it. I am not sure if either knew how T-rex would have used its hands but I am certain that it would not oblige them for a selfie!

Jabalpur cantonment has a second hill close to the Bara Simla Hill called the Chhota (meaning small) Simla Hill where broken bone fragments can be found as you ascend. At the base of the hill, within the boundary walls of the Gun Carriage Factory in Jabalpur, one of the largest artillery and armaments factories in India, is a temple complex called the Pat Baba Mandir dedicated to Hanuman and other Hindu deities. The temples’ precinct offered protection to the bones, eggs and nests that were discovered here because generations of priests and devotees believed that the eggs were signs of Shiva that appeared after he slayed the asuras (demons) who terrorised sages in this forest. Tragically, during a renovation in 2011, many nests and eggs were damaged and lost, and today very few fossils remain in the possession of the temples’ priests.

Detail of Narmada sedimentary rocks (Photo: Rajiv Sikand) Detail of Narmada sedimentary rocks (Photo: Rajiv Sikand)

The Narmada tumbles down and cuts through the marble cliffs near Jabalpur. Strictly speaking this is dolomitic marble, not pure marble. It lies exposed mostly around Bhedaghat as layers of sandstone covers it east and west of here. These white rocks resurface intermittently till Dhar, 600 kilometres west of Jabalpur, after which they disappear. Towards the east, these rocks lie under orange-brown sandstone till Durg in Chhattisgarh, where the dolomite is extracted for processing iron ore in the steel belt around Bhilai.

The seaways that cut through the middle of the Indian land mass were shallow and dotted with islands, and it was probably easy for large migratory dinosaurs like Titanosaurus to wade across these water bodies. At least seven different species of these gentle, plant-eating giants from the Cretaceous period have been identified in India alone. Titanosaurus varied greatly in size and external appearance; there was even a Titanosaurus that was armoured, with plates as bony extensions emerging from its skin. The bones of Titanosaurus suggest that they were perhaps related to a South American dinosaur called Saltasaurus. When Barapasaurus and Kotasaurus became extinct, Titanosaurus dominated as the top browser and is the largest known dinosaur of the Cretaceous period in India. Over 25 metres long and about 12 metres tall, Titanosaurus was small in comparison to Barapasaurus, but still as tall as a four-storeyed building. For such an enormous creature, its teeth were extremely small and thin, and palæontologists believe that they were perhaps used only for stripping leaves and shoots and not for grinding or chewing. That work may have been performed by the gastroliths (stomach stones) in its digestive tract.

Like many other sauropods, Titanosaurus also had a large thumb-claw that may have helped their young defend themselves against predators. But the biggest weapon these dinosaurs had was their whip-like tail that was capable of stunning any would-be predator. Studies done on trackways and footprints of large sauropod herds in Argentina and the US show that walking in packs with the young in the centre probably a defensive tactic Titanosaurus employed against predators. Despite being widely found, there is no assembled skeleton or even an authentic illustration of any Titanosaurus from India.

 Sauropod of South America (Artwork titled: Titans in down, Copyright: Rodolfo Nogueira) Sauropod of South America (Artwork titled: Titans in down, Copyright: Rodolfo Nogueira)

Sauropods pushed the extremes of terrestrial body size—to the tune of excess of tonnes. In doing so, they challenged the very concepts of anatomy, biomechanics and physiologic design known to science. How these animals coordinated their weight distribution with their exceptional bone structure, nervous system, breathing and digestion, among other functions, has intrigued biologists and compelled them to imagine everything beyond known physical limits. This makes sauropods perhaps the most sophisticated animals ever to tread the surface of Earth. They lived for nearly 160 million years, from the very beginning to the end of the dinosaur dynasty. They walked on every land mass and evolved into several hundred species. Titanosaurs were the largest herbivores of the Cretaceous from India. Although there is no authentic drawing of these creatures, we can assume that they resembled their Argentinian cousins (shown here) from the same period.

While the herbivorous Titanosaurus lorded over low tropical jungles, small carnivorous dinosaurs like Indosaurus (meaning ‘Indian lizard’) and land crocodiles like Laevisuchus (meaning ‘light crocodile’) lived in dense forests along the Narmada. Another menacing predator from this period was Indosuchus which had a skull that measured almost 1 metre, and razor-sharp front teeth that were 10 centimetres long. Indosuchus hunted in packs to challenge larger predators. Its fossils have been found at many other sites along the Narmada, and a few vertebrae have been found in the limestone beds of Ariyalur district in Tamil Nadu, too.

About 90 kilometres east of Ahmedabad and 70 kilometres north of Vadodara, close to the end of the Narmada’s journey, in the village of Raiholi in Kheda district, lies an extraordinary fossil graveyard. Raiholi features prominently on the world’s palæontological map because it is one of the best places to see dinosaur nests and eggs. Interestingly, its discovery was almost accidental. In fact, dinosaur eggs appeared rather late—a little over three decades ago—on India’s palæontological scene. In October 1982, Professor Ashok Sahni, an incurably curious and widely respected palæontologist was attending a seminar at the Physical Research Laboratory at Ahmedabad when a young officer of the Geological Survey of India (GSI), Dhananjay Mohabey, asked him about a round rock, about the size of a coconut.

Mohabey worked with the GSI’s Nagpur office and, while on a survey of the Gujarat region, had heard of the frequent discovery of ‘cannonballs’ during blasting operations at the ACC Cement factory at Balasinor, not far from Raiholi. The mine managers often decorated their shelves with these so-called cannonballs and used them to line garden paths leading to their site office. Professor Sahni analysed the shell cover of the ‘cannonball’ Mohabey presented to him and found that it was the egg of a dinosaur!

The cover of Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent The cover of Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent

Excerpted from Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent by Pranay Lal, Penguin Random House India , 2016 with the permission of the publisher.

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