I knew as well as anyone else that India is one of the few countries in the world where dinosaurs existed — and still exist — but I had no idea we had such a rich history with the massive reptiles. Not until I visited the Indroda Dinosaur and Fossil Park in Ahmedabad, India’s only dinosaur and fossil park. As birds are the modern descendents of dinosaurs, I thought it was my duty to find out a little more about their very distant relatives. Much of what we know about dinosaurs has been based on fossils and bones excavated from the Narmada basin around places like Jabalpur, where Asia’s first dinosaur remnants were found in 1828.
This was of a giant called Titanosaurus indicus — a herbivore with tiny pointed teeth, which paleontologists believe were only good for stripping leaves. There were, apparently, several species of Titanosaurus dinosaurs, of varying sizes and appearance.
Another prize site, in fact, one of the richest nesting sites found in the world, is Rahioli, about 90 km east of Ahmedabad. Here nests (with or without eggs, which were mistaken for cannonballs) were discovered crowded together, indicating that the dinosaurs nested communally, like many birds do. This priceless paleontological find, alas, was swiftly looted and vandalised instead of being provided Z-plus security. Nearby, too, was a treasure trove of fossil bones awaiting discovery. It was from here that an enthusiastic Indian geologist with the Geological Survey of India, with assistance from a pair of American counterparts, painstakingly put together the skull bones of a species special to India, called Rajasaurus narmadensis, meaning “king lizard of the Narmada”. This fellow, an apex predator of the Cretaceous period (145 to 66 million years ago), was initially thought to be 10 to 11 m long, but which has more recently been downsized to only 6 m. Smaller than Tyrannosaurus rex, it was believed to be more ferocious.
Nesting sites have also been found in other places in Gujarat as well as in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra by the GSI. Worldwide, it has been estimated that 750 to more than 1,000 species of dinosaurs existed, while the figures for India are more modest, between 25 and 30 plus. The indigenous ones included the hefty 46 foot tall Barapasaurus, apparently a harmless herbivore, whose name meant “big-legged lizard”. At 110 ft, the Bruhathakayosaurus was one of the tallest. While some giants were vegetarians, others were carnivores; some even hunted in packs.
One major role that India has played in the history of dinosaurs has been in the mass extinction event which took place 65 to 66 million years ago. There are several theories to this (even combinations of theories because it’s hard to say with any certainty how these behemoths died out). The most dramatic theory, of course, is that of the suspected asteroid hit that the earth took around that time in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. The asteroid scattered the metal iridium (not usually found on the surface of the earth, but present on asteroids) all over, besides throwing up a huge cloud of sunlight-blocking toxic greenhouse gases, which caused earth’s life-support system (photosynthesis) to almost shut down. Around the same time, there was a volcanic turmoil in the Deccan traps, which was also voiding vast quantities of magma from the bowels of the earth — stacked up 1.5 miles thick over an area of one million square miles. This magma was rich in iridium, too. The mega volcanic belching also let out clouds of toxic gases causing acid rain. Some scientists think it was a combination of these two events that led to the extinction, while others disregard this altogether and think it was a more gradual change of climate and rising sea levels which made the dinosaurs die out.
What’s interesting is that while the dinosaurs died out, other creatures like birds and small animals survived the holocausts. Birds, in fact, are the true descendents of these gigantic creatures: like dinosaurs, they lay eggs, have gizzards where seeds are crushed by swallowed pebbles (the dinosaurs had gastrolites — stomach stones to mince vegetation), and, they both sometimes nest in colonies. Birds are biped and so were many dinosaurs. Then, of course, some dinosaurs became warm-blooded (though it’s a moot point whether they were really as cold-blooded as made out to be), lost one hell of a lot of weight, grew feathers and leant to fly! Even today, when you look into a chicken’s eye, you see that cold, implacable, rather expressionless reptilian look and blink — the same that you see in the eye of a crocodile or lizard, that seems to tell you: “Watch your step, sonny boy, do you know who my cousin 66 million years ago was?”