Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

South Africa has yielded up a 190 million year-old nest of dinosaur eggs. Human beings, arriving on the scene millions of years later, also left startling traces of their passage.

The dinosaur nest was found in a stretch of rock in South Africa’s Golden Gate Highlands National Park. The park is known for its golden, ochre, and orange-hued deeply eroded sandstone cliffs and outcrops, especially the Brandwag rock. Another feature of the area is the numerous caves and shelters displaying rock paintings by the San people.

The sandstone formations in the park were deposited towards the end of the Triassic Period (250 to 200 million years ago). At that time the climate of the area was becoming progressively drier until arid desert conditions set in, resulting in a land of dunes and sandy desert, with occasional scattered oases. The deposition of the sandstones ended when lava flowed out over the desert 190 million years ago.

Palaeontologists found 10 separate nests, each containing clutches of up to 34 eggs measuring 6-7cm. The fossils belong to Massospondylus, a member of a group of dinosaurs called prosauropods, ancestors of the giant, plant-eating sauropods – the four-legged long-necked dinosaurs familiar from every dinosaur movie and its herd of tie-in toys.

Massospondylus dinosaurs lived along the floodplains of major rivers that crossed this dune-covered desert. These creatures hatched from eggs about three times bigger than a hen’s egg, but grew into giant creatures four to five metres long. Each breeding season, large numbers of Massospondylus returned to the Golden Gate area, to lay their eggs and to raise their offspring. They came back here because there was always water, and there was plenty of vegetation off which to feed.

South Africa’s Golden Gate Highlands National Park includes the Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg range of mountains. In this relatively small region there are at least 20,000 rock paintings at 500 cave and overhang sites. The oldest are thought to date back at least 3,000 years and the single biggest site, Sebaayeni Cave, contains an astonishing 1,146 individual paintings.

The San are one of 14 known extant “ancestral population clusters” (from which all known modern humans evolved). The original inhabitants of the Drakensberg, they originate in the Late Stone Age, a period that, in this region, lasted from 16,000 years ago to the middle of the 19th century.

What price dinosaur eggs? In 2006 a 65 million-year-old nest of dinosaur eggs was sold to an unnamed buyer at auction in Los Angeles for $420,000. The nest contained 22 broken eggs, 19 of which were in embryonic form, with some of the tiny raptors clearly visible. The nest was discovered in 1984 in Guangdong, southern China, and was sold by Bonham’s despite protests by Chinese palaeontologists. In South Africa research is being carried out by experts from the University of Toronto, Canada, making it highly unlikely that this nest will be sold off. Earlier finds are currently on display at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum.

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