Page last updated at 12:28 GMT, Monday, 21 July 2008 13:28 UK

Yemen embraces its Jurassic past

By Stephanie Hancock
BBC News, Madar village, Yemen

Dr Mohammed al-Wosabi next to some prints from ornithopods (bipedal dinosaurs)
The prints show how dinosaurs behaved, says Dr Wosabi
The village of Madar is perhaps an unlikely setting for a major scientific discovery that has been hailed as a 'new frontier' for the Middle East.

Tucked away in the heart of rural Yemen, Madar now finds itself in the limelight after a series of dinosaur prints were discovered in the village - the first such discovery on the Arabian Peninsula.

The dinosaur tracks have been lying exposed, above ground, for centuries, but scientists only recently stumbled across them following a tip-off from a local journalist.

Villagers have lived alongside the now famous footprints for generations, but never had any inkling about how important they would turn out to be.

"Before these tracks were named, we believed they were footprints from giant camels," said Yahir Saleh Arshami, who has dinosaur tracks running right in front of his house.

"But now they tell us they are from dinosaurs - we were extremely surprised. Luckily I built my house around the footprints so as not to disturb them."

The prints are located in several different sites dotted around Madar village, and are from both ornithopods - bipedal dinosaurs - as well as sauropods, which walked on four legs and are the largest animals ever to have lived on land.

Ancient beach

At 150 million years old, the tracks are so ancient they were made before the landmasses of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula were separated by the Red Sea.

Mr Arshami outside his home
Mr Arshami thought the prints around his home were made by giant camels

Scientists are extremely excited about the discovery.

"These prints are very important in terms of culture and history, but they also allow us to go back in time and trace their history, and find out about the environment at the time," said Dr Mohammed al-Wosabi, of the University of Sana'a.

Dr Wosabi was the first scientist to view the tracks.

"These prints were made on limestone rock, which is only deposited in shallow marine areas, so we know these dinosaurs were living in a beach-type environment."

But perhaps more importantly, the prints - some of which are half a metre wide - also offer a glimpse into the dinosaurs' behaviour, vital information which cannot be gleaned by studying fossils alone.

The footprints capture a specific moment in time, almost like a photograph, and by analysing the spacing of the tracks scientists can tell what the dinosaurs were doing all those millions of years ago - even how quickly they were walking.

"The prints show a herd of eleven dinosaurs walking together," said Dr Wosabi.

Local councillor Abdul Aziz poses next to some sauropod prints
Villagers have been excited to learn about their famous heritage

"We can see that the smaller animals were walking quickly to keep up with the bigger dinosaurs, while the bigger ones slowed down their pace so the smaller ones could keep up.

"This is an example of social behaviour we did not know about before."

Villagers in Madar are both excited and proud to have such an important discovery right on their doorstep.

'Great adventure'

"It is thanks to Dr Wosabi that we know about these footprints - we used to just pass on by them," said Abdul Aziz, a local councillor in Madar.

"It's a great adventure to have dinosaur prints here, it feels really great - all this culture and history, and right here in our village as well."

A sign showing the way to the prints on the outskirts of Madar village
Many hope the prints will attract more tourists to Madar

One of the biggest challenges for scientists who studied the prints was explaining to villagers what dinosaurs looked like.

"We brought picture books to show the villagers, and especially the children, what dinosaurs were," said Dr Wosabi.

"When they saw the pictures the villagers were surprised - stunned even - because what they thought were camels had changed into dinosaurs. They were very shocked."

But villagers have now embraced their famous heritage, and most of Madar's 3,000 inhabitants have even watched the Hollywood blockbuster, Jurassic Park.

Scientists in Yemen have applied for the prints to be given Unesco status, not only to properly protect them, but also in the hope that the dinosaur tracks might help pull in curious tourists as well.

Madar's friendly locals are keen for more foreigners to visit the village.

As Mr Arshami, whose home is ringed by dinosaur prints, said: "It's something good for the country and many people have come to see this site. For scientists and tourists, it's very good. We hope more tourists will come."

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