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Dinosaurs in India

When you hear the word dinosaur, what comes to mind first?  Probably a T-rex  or a Stegosaurus. Or maybe even an Allosaurus , a Brontosaurus or  a Triceratop. These magnificent, prehistoric creatures all walked the lands of North America. But we know now that dinosaurs lived everywhere, so what about those that inhabited other parts of the world? What about the Indian subcontinent?

In recent years, some amazing discoveries like the Bajadasaurus from Patagonia, Argentina, and Microraptor zhaoianus from Liaoning, China, caused quite the stir. The world’s first “swimming dinosaur” was found in Mongolia. 

However, the dinosaurs discovered in India remain mostly unknown

There have been some extraordinary discoveries of extinct mammals in the Indian subcontinent (Pakistan), like the early four-legged whales Pakicetus and Ambulocetus, but Indian dinosaur discoveries remain largely under the radar. Here are some spectacular discoveries made in the last century.

  • Indosuchus – Found in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, Indosuchus was an abelisaurid dinosaur – a bipedal (two-legged) carnivorous dinosaur. It was about 7 meters long and weighed about 1.2 tonnes. 
  • Rajasaurus – Another famous abelisaurid dinosaur was the Rajasaurus, or the  “king lizard.” It had a single horn on its head. Current estimates put the dinosaur at 6.6 meters (22ft) long.
    Isisaurus – Named after the Indian Statistical Institute, Isisaurus was a long-necked sauropod dinosaur. It was discovered in the Lameta Formation of India. 
  • Bruhathkayosaurus – A “huge-bodied lizard”, Bruhathkayosaurus was a sauropod dinosaur. Based on estimates made in 1987, Bruhathkayosaurus was more than 35 meters (115 ft) long and weighed over 80 tonnes. In 2017, the holotype fossil (a single type specimen upon which the description and name of a new species is based) was reported to have disintegrated. 

How can we save this science?

“We need a museum in India which will be a central repository for Indian fossils,” says Dr. Advait M. Jukar, vertebrate paleontologist and lecturer of Paleontology in the Department of Geosciences,  University of Arizona. Dr. Jukar has worked extensively on discovering the history of paleontology in the Indian subcontinent.

“We have a lot of Indian professors and scientists from the GSI (Geological Survey of India) who have done excellent work collecting fossils, but once the people retire, there is no place to store them in perpetuity, and oftentimes, they get lost,” he said.

Dr. Jukar points to a number of reasons why paleontology in India has taken a back seat.

  • An independent India had different priorities: Before India won independence in 1947, paleontologists had uncovered one of the largest records of fossil mammals anywhere in the world. However, post-independence, the focus shifted more to applied sciences and engineering, as was the need for a new country. Fossils were used by geologists to date the strata and look for fossil fuel.
  • Lack of patronage: There have been sporadic efforts to keep the science alive, like the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences, and Paleontological Society of India. But paleontology, as a science, requires a lot of patronage. It needs museums and buy-in from universities. There are fossils in various regional museums, which falls under the purview of  the Geological Survey of India. But the primary focus of the GSI post-independence was mining and petrochemicals, and thus the money was not allocated to paleontology. 
  • The scarcity of jobs: At Universities, focus shifted to engineering, management, economics, and computer sciences. As a result, paleontology became a neglected field, along with ecological sciences. 

Population makes dinosaur discoveries harder

Not many dinosaur-bearing deposits in India have been explored, because India does not have vast expanses of uninhabited land needed to study fossils, says Dr. Jukar. A rising population means that any land available is quickly built upon and fossils are lost. 

Dr. Jukar points out that the popular narrative that many fossils were taken out of India during colonial times is not entirely true. He says that about half the discoveries made during colonial times are still in the country. They are in the regional museums, like in Kolkata, Nagpur, Lucknow and Saketi. 

But they are left unexplored and unexamined. “It is because of a lack of consistent expertise in the survey, and a lack of government interest in getting the field going,” says Dr. Jukar. 

The Deccan Traps — a fossil minefield

This is a photo of the Deccan Traps in the Western Ghats. (Photo credit: Wikipedia photo by Nicholas-1)
The Deccan Traps, Western Ghats. (Photo credit: Wikipedia photo by Nicholas-1)

The Deccan Traps  in west-central India are one of the largest volcanic features on Earth. There is layer upon layer of solidified flood basalt from volcanic eruptions, spanning over 500,000 square kilometers. Dr. Jukar was a part of a dig in Deccan Traps when he was a college student in Portland, Oregon. He likens the Traps to a layered cake, with the lava being the cake and the soil in between being the icing. Fossils are found in these layers of icing. 

“The age constraint on when this took place is still a bit iffy,” says Dr Jukar. “There are crews from Berkley that suggest that bulk of the vulcanism took place after the extinction of the dinosaurs , while people from Princeton argue that it took place at the end of the age of dinosaurs.” What role, if any, Deccan Traps played in the extinction of dinosaurs is still up for debate. 

Future of Indian Paleontology

In an effort to promote and preserve Indian paleontology, Dr. Jukar is part of an initiative, called TIME  or The Indian Museum of Earth, which will be a central repository of the geological and paleontological histories of India, including current scientific research in these fields.

Is it worth pursuing as a career?

Yes, Dr. Jukar says. There are institutes such as BSIP, Panjab University , IIT Roorkee , Delhi University , that are doing great work in the field. The problem, he reiterates, is the absence of a place to store the fossils in perpetuity. Because, for a paleontologist, the basic data is a fossil specimen. 

“However, get a Plan B,” Dr Jukar warns prospective paleontologists. There are not many jobs in the field and it is advisable to ensure that their skills can be applied elsewhere, like comparative anatomy. Many paleontologists teach anatomy in med schools, especially in North America and Europe. A paleontologist also uses a lot of big data analysis, statistics, and programming skills. These are skills that can be applied to a career in tech as well.

More recently,  a new research tool called  Ancient DNA  was used to study the Neanderthal genome that showed that modern humans have parts of the same gene. This field has applications in biotech and bioinformatics. 

Aindrila Roy is a stay-at-home mom with her fingers in many pies. She writes, reads, makes jewelry, sings, dances and is a huge Paleontology nerd. Her book, I See You, was self-published on Amazon. She...