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The dinosaur wonders of India's Jurassic Park

Dinosaur egg recovered in Gujarat
Gujarat is sometimes called the 'Jurassic Park of India' Photos: Sanjoy Ghosh

India's Gujarat state is home to one of the world's largest collections of dinosaur remains. The BBC's Soutik Biswas finds out how this is fuelling dinosaur tourism.

About an hour's drive from busy Ahmedabad city in India's western Gujarat state is what many call the "Jurassic Park of India" - a nod to Steven Spielberg's spell-binding dinosaur film.

Balasinor has seen better times: in the days before Independence it was one of a handful of Muslim-dominated princely states in Gujarat. More than 100 villages made up a cosmopolitan state ruled by a Pathan regent.

Now it is a nondescript district town ringed by farming villages. The elegant royal palace is still intact, and the family runs luxury accomodation from its premises.

But Balasinor is better known around the world as the site of one of the largest dinosaur egg hatcheries and a host of other fossilised dinosaur remains.

Rush of tourists

A sprawling 72-acre swathe of hills and flatlands studded with fossilised dinosaur remains has begun triggering off what tourism officials in the state call "dinosaur tourism".

"This place is a gold mine," says Salauddin Khan Babi, second generation scion of the royal family and a dinosaur enthusiast.

"I get lots of foreign tourist groups who come here to see the dinosaur remains," says Mr Babi.

Scientists say that the dinosaur site at Balasinor was accidentally discovered when palaeontologists stumbled upon dinosaur bones and fossils during a regular geological survey of this mineral-rich area in the early 1980s.

Rocks with dinosaur footprints in Gujarat
Rocks with dinosaur footprints have been found at various places

The find sent ripples of excitement through neighbouring villages and many residents picked up fossilised eggs, brought them home and worshipped them.

Since then excavations have thrown up a veritable trove of dinosaur remains - eggs, bones, a skeleton which is now kept in a Calcutta (Kolkata) museum - bringing hordes of scientists and tourists to the place.

The crowning find was the remains of what is the only "Indian" dinosaur in the world, fossils of which have been found only in Gujarat along the Narmada river and in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh state.

Researchers aptly named this squat, thick-legged, heavy-bodied carnivorous dinosaur with a crested horn, Rajasaurus narmandensis, or the regal reptile from Narmada.

They say it belongs to the genus - sub-family - of the ferocious carnivore Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Balasinor has also thrown up what scientists say is the fossilised remains of a snake that dined on dinosaur eggs - the 67 million-year-old skeleton was found in a dinosaur nest.

The 3.5m fossilised snake is believed to have fed on the hatchlings of sauropods. It was found wrapped around a baby titanosaur. This is believed to be the first evidence of feeding behaviour in a fossilised primitive snake.

Researchers believe that the snake was attacking a hatchling that had just emerged from the egg. The event was then overcome by a natural disaster, possibly a storm, and the whole scene was frozen in time.

Commercial potential

Sensing the commercial potential of the place, the state-run tourism department has declared the site a "dinosaur park" and is building facilities around it to draw visitors.

"The frenzy is just picking up. The potential to turn around this place with dinosaur remains as the biggest attraction is enormous," says Mr Babi.

Piecing together the evidence in Balasinor, researchers now believe that Gujarat is home to one of the largest clutch of dinosaur hatcheries in the world.

At least 13 species of dinosaurs lived here, possibly for more than 100 million years until their extinction some 65 million years ago.

A model of Rajasaurus narmadensis
Rajasaurus narmadensis belonged to a family of large carnivorous dinosaurs

They say the dinosaurs lived and thrived on the luxurious vegetation on the flatlands close to the Narmada river in what was then the single landmass of the super-continent Pangaea.

The soft soil made hatching and protecting eggs easier for the animals. So well-protected are the fossilised eggs found here that many researchers call them the best-preserved eggs in the world after the ones found in Aix-en-Provence in France.

Fossilised remains of dinosaurs have been found in a number of districts in Gujarat, including Panchmahal, Godhra, Sabarkantha and the sprawling Kutch region.

In the Kuar island and the Chapri areas of Kutch, researchers have found dinosaur bones which date back to "roughly 170 to 180 million years", says geologist and dinosaur researcher Dr ZG Ghevaria.

Fossilisation could have been helped by tectonic upheavals, drifting of sand and silt, movements of rivers and even possible tsunamis, researchers believe.

That is not all. The remains in Gujarat also offer tantalising clues to the extinction of dinosaurs.

Meteorite?

Evidence of radioactive iridium, a white radioactive metal commonly found in meteorites, has been found in the Anjar area of Kutch lending weight to a theory that a meteorite crash doomed the animal to extinction.

Fossiled dinosaur bone found at Balasinore
Balasinor is home to one of the largest dinosaur egg hatcheries in the world

"This is the only place in the world where you find evidence of the life and death of the dinosaur. You find their bones and then you find traces of iridium in separate geological layers," says Dr Ghevaria.

Outside China, Gujarat is home to most of Asia's dinosaur hatcheries. Another dinosaur park, a six-acre leafy facility in the state capital, Gandhinagar, is proof of this.

It is home to one of the largest stored collections of dinosaur remains, including a dinosaur bone marrow - which has become choked with crystals over time. There are also rocks studded with eggs and foot impressions.

There are realistic fibre-glass models of the various species of dinosaur.

Park chief MK Pandey is optimistic.

"This is not the end, if we excavate more in Gujarat we will get more dinosaur remains. Dino tourism could become the tourism of the future here. Easily!"



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SEE ALSO
New Indian dino species found
13 Aug 03 |  South Asia
Dino heatwave recorded in leaves
11 Jun 02 |  Science/Nature
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