Koreanosaurus Boseongensis

I recently had an article about dinosaurs published on the front cover of the Gwangju News. I’ve spent a little time trying to extract the pages, create new PDFs and upload the article in its original form but haven’t been able to do so. Since it was proving to be such a ballache, here is the article in text only format. I found researching and writing this piece very enjoyable and hope you will too. I’ve been making a conscious effort to write outside my comfort zone and hopefully it’ll pay off…

Me with Professors Huh and Shin

Korea is a country fixated on technology. Time Magazine recently named the English teaching robot as one of the best inventions of 2010. They have the fastest broadband connection in the world and what was until recently the fastest railway system. You could easily be forgiven for assuming that all Koreans were hurtling towards the future at breakneck speed. But in a quiet corner of Gwangju, there is vital work ongoing that’s establishing and defining the peninsula’s unbreakable bond with the past.

The official approval of Koreanosaurus Boseongensis as a new genus and species in October locked the eyes of the scientific world onto the Korea Dinosaur Research Center at Chonnam University. But in truth, it’s just the latest in a long line of remarkable discoveries by Professor Min Huh and his team of researchers.  Korea has proven to be one of the most fertile hunting grounds for excavation teams: now the aptly named Koreanosaurus can take pride of place as the jewel in the crown.

The fossilized remains were discovered in Bibong-ri Boseong, Jeollanam-do (a town more noted for its luscious green tea plantations) in 2003 by Professor Huh’s team. After seven years of excavation, preparation, research and reconstruction, they were finally given the green light to go public with their findings just a few weeks ago. Professor Huh admits it’s been a “very exciting and busy time.”

He is Korea’s top dinosaur expert, respected the world over for his discoveries. He is also the Dean of the Natural Sciences Department of Chonnam. But sitting in his research facility, tucked away at the back of the university, he is amicable and accessible. He manages to simplify everything: offering bite-sized pieces of information, easily digested by those without a background in geology.  He explains about how 100 million years ago, there was only one, super continent. Thus, Korea was connected to China and Mongolia, two other areas rich in dinosaur fossils.

The conditions in Korea were perfect for attracting prehistoric wildlife, in all shapes and sizes. Large parts of what is now Jeollanam-do were lakes; which explains the huge collection of dinosaur footprints, eggs and bone fossils in the area. The county provided some much needed watering holes. The extent of Professor Huh’s findings in the region shouldn’t be understated. He recalls his first fruitful excavation, in Haenam in 1996.

“I didn’t know anything about large dinosaur footprints at the time,” he explains. “I found one, about ten centimeters wide, it looked like the roots of a plant, embedded in sedimentary rock bedding. We kept looking and found more and more. I contacted Professor Martin Lockley, an expert in Colorado University and told him about the find. He was shocked and said only: ‘how many?’”

In total, they found 823 dinosaur and 443 pterosaur footprints Haenam. It is the largest pterosaur (the earliest vertebrates known to have evolved powered flight. The most famous pterosaur is the pterodactyl) print site in the world. They also found the world’s oldest webbed bird footprint, dating back 85 million years. In fact, Haenam is unique in being the only site in the world where footprints of dinosaurs, pterosaurs, birds and arthropods (ancient arachnids, crustaceans and insects) have been found in the same locale.

Professor Huh’s next excavation brought him to Hwasun, where he explained that to date his team have uncovered more than 1,800 wide-ranging dinosaur footprints, as well as a trackway which exhibits the fastest speed of any dinosaur in Korea. In Yeosu, they found the world’s longest ornithopod (small, bipedal plant-eating dinosaurs, often birdlike) trackway in the world, amongst 3,853 other footprints.

Goseong, further down the coast towards Busan, has also proven to be a fruitful location for

Professor Huh. In times gone by, Korea’s second city was nothing but water: a huge lake, comparable in size to Lake Superior. As such, it too proved a popular habitat for dinosaurs and has the world’s highest density of dinosaur footprints, with over 5,000 being located, across many different species.

But it was in Boseong that Professor Huh’s remarkable and ultimate achievement was to be unveiled. Unsurprisingly, he beams as he proudly shows me the remains of a skeleton. Koreanosaurus Boseongensis is smaller than you might think. “Jurassic Park was just a movie,” the Professor explains, smiling. “It really wasn’t historically accurate.” The team, too, were initially surprised by the finding. Most of the footprints in the area are indicative of much larger creatures: they were puzzled by the remains.

The Korean team’s expertise is mostly in footprints. They enlisted Pascal Godefroit, a paleontologist from Belgium to confirm that the Koreanosaurus is, indeed, unique to Korea only. It is assumed that it moved primarily on all fours, because of its overall body-plan and the location of the discovery. This, in itself, is an uncommon feature.

Professor Huh continues: “We think it was capable of digging, because of the position of its arms. This would have helped it to find shelter and digging holes with which to lay eggs and raise its young. It was an ornithopod with long legs and neck, but with shorter hindlegs. We believe it moved quite slowly.”

The Professor explained that Koreanosaurus was about a metre tall, and 2.5 long. It weighed about one hundred kilograms and lived in the late Cretaceous period (99.6 million to 65.5 million years ago). The discovery is his most exciting yet, he admits, but there is much work to be done. The next task to hand is to examine and try to establish links between bones and eggs found in the area. Watching the research student buzz round the lab, it’s easy to see that they won’t stop until they have answers.

As Professor Huh places a one hundred million year old bone in my hand, I can’t help but reflect on the minor role in world history human beings have played. We have roamed the earth, in our current form, for a mere two hundred thousand years. Dinosaurs ruled the domain for over three hundred million. The dinosaurs of Korea were wiped out by a series of comets and volcanoes (which resulted in the formation of amongst others, Mudeung Mountain). We may just be doing similarly devastating damage; all within the blink of an eye that has been our lifespan.

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