The fossil of a hatched dinosaur egg found on the banks of the Narmada (Photo: Ashish Sharma)
Vishal Verma hopped on a bike on a cold winter’s morning in 2006 to search again for something that had long eluded him. Verma, a physics teacher in a government high school in Mandav, Madhya Pradesh, is an amateur fossil hunter. When he was a child, Verma’s father, a clerk in the irrigation department, would take him to sites along the Narmada river, where a colleague would sometimes show him traces of ancient marine life. Ever since Verma laid his eyes on an ancient Cidaris, a sea urchin specie, he had become enamoured with such fossils. He started scanning these areas as an adult and recovered an enviable tranche of ancient fossils, from oysters and shark teeth, to trees, many of which went on to be featured in papers published by palaeontologists in several respected journals.
During that period in 2006, zipping on a motorcycle to the outskirts of the neighbouring towns of Bagh and Kukshi, and examining the rocky outcrops of the Narmada on foot, Verma was in search of the fossils of dinosaur eggs.
“A few fossils of dinosaurs and their eggs had been recovered from this area by researchers in the past,” Verma says. “But these hadn’t been too many. And all the finds had been done by researchers, not amateurs like me.”
Verma had crammed his head, he says, with research material and papers over dinosaur eggs to help him identify one. But despite having travelled those areas for years, he had never chanced upon one. “But if there is one thing I have learnt in all these years looking for fossils, it is the importance of luck and patience,” Verma says.
That day, Verma and his friend found around 25 eggs, some of them full and nearly 19 centimetres in diameter. When they returned the next day, they found a few more, and more on the third day. In total, over the course of a couple of months, Verma discovered nearly 100 eggs, many of them broken and in fragments, but some even unhatched and in full shape. He would return home late in the night, perilously balancing large rocks that were filled with the fragments of these eggs on his bike. On some occasions, he would have to borrow money to rent large vans that could transport these rocks. He even began to rent a storeroom nearby to house these ancient fossils.
“It was one of the largest discoveries of eggs in India, and brought many researchers to this area,” Verma recalls.
“Just by looking at an egg, you can come to know a lot of things. For instance, if an egg is more spherical in shape, it is probably a herbivore. An elongated egg probably belongs to a carnivore,” says Vishal Verma, amateur fossil hunter
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Seventeen years since, Verma and a bunch of palaeontologists have made an even larger and more significant discovery, probably the biggest recorded haul of dinosaur nesting sites and egg fossils from a single location in India. The team found, as described in their recently published paper in the journal PLOS ONE, 92 nesting sites and the fossils of 256 eggs belonging to a number of Titanosaur species. Apart from the sheer size of this fossilised dinosaur hatchery, this discovery also throws new light on the reproductive habits of these ancient creatures.
Ever since William Henry Sleeman, a British soldier, unearthed the bones of a Sauropod dinosaur close to Jabalpur in 1828—just four years after the first fossils of dinosaurs were recorded from Oxfordshire in the UK—several sites in India have over the years regularly thrown up well-preserved bones of dinosaurs, egg fossils and even coprolites (or excreta). According to records, dinosaurs in India existed from the Late Triassic to the end of the Cretaceous (between 200 million years and 65 million years ago), quite a large part of which falls in the period when the Indian subcontinent was breaking free from the supercontinent known as Gondwanaland and began gradually drifting north, before crashing into Asia.
There are probably many more sites spread across India, palaeontologists say, just that nobody has got to them yet. A lot of the sites found so far fall along the banks of the Narmada. According to GVR Prasad, the head of the Department of Geology at the Centre for Advanced Studies in the University of Delhi, who along with his student Harsha Dhiman led this research, the discovery suggests that this whole region was one large hatchery. “It looks like a large area covered by nesting sites, from Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh to the east to Balasinor in Gujarat to the west, an area that stretches for nearly 900 to 1,000 kilometres. So, it is a massive area, comparable to the size of the large hatcheries that have been reported in some areas of Argentina, China, Spain and Mongolia,” he says.
An egg, Verma points out, can tell us quite a bit about the dinosaur it belonged to. “Just by looking at an egg, you can come to know a lot of things. For instance, if an egg is more spherical in shape, it is probably a herbivore. An elongated egg probably belongs to a carnivore,” he says.
The latest discovery tells us even more.
Prasad is one of India’s leading palaeontologists. Born in a village in Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur district, he first became interested in this field when a relative who taught geology at a university in Madhya Pradesh would visit during holidays and show him fossils from ancient times. Later, working with Ashok Sahni, the well-known Indian palaeontologist, his interest further developed. Over his career, Prasad has made many significant discoveries. One of these was the first-ever fossil of a mammal belonging to the Cretaceous period in India. Another was of an Ichthyosaurus, an ocean-dwelling predator that lived alongside dinosaurs in the Mesozoic Era, around 250 million years ago, near a village in Kutch that caused waves in the field of palaeontology back in 2017.
It was around 2012 when Verma, who had continued to find many more fossils of dinosaur eggs in the years after his first discovery in 2006, reached out to Prasad. “For the last 10 years, I kept going back to that spot again and again,” Prasad says. Prasad, Dhiman, Verma and a few more researchers, formed a team who scoured through this area looking for more nesting sites. “If you do not look very carefully, you will miss out on these eggs,” says Prasad. On most occasions, these eggs are just fragments of the outer eggshell that are lodged in rocks. “Sometimes when you follow these fragments, it will lead you to a few more. And sometimes when you find many small fragments everywhere, it can lead you to a nest.”
“It looks like a large area covered by nesting sites, from Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh to the East to Balasinor in Gujarat to the West, an area that stretches for nearly 900 to 1,000 kilometres. So, it is a massive area, comparable to the size of the large hatcheries,” says GVR Prasad head, Department of Geology, Centre for Advanced Studies, Delhi University
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These eggs, ranging from 15 centimetres in diameter to 17 centimetres and found in nests ranging from one egg to 20, provide many intimate details about the lives of these colossal, long-necked Sauropods. They probably lay eggs sequentially, releasing them one by one with a gap between two laying events, as seen in modern birds, and not like modern reptiles, such as turtles and crocodiles, which lay all eggs together as a clutch. The close proximity of the nests suggests, the researchers say, that these dinosaurs laid eggs together in colonies or rookeries, again in the manner of several birds in the present day. These Titanosaurs weren’t the most attentive parents either. Unlike present-day birds, which incubate their eggs, the researchers believe the Titanosaurs laid them and left the hatchlings to fend for themselves. “These are huge animals but the space between the nesting sites is very small. They could have easily trampled the site had they returned,” Prasad says. “So, we suggest that this was a site of colonial nesting, where the animals deposited their eggs and went away. And did not care for their young, like birds or some other dinosaurs were known to do.”
One insight was particularly revelatory. How reptilian—or avian—were dinosaurs is one of the big puzzles of the world of palaeontology. We now know that many dinosaurs were warm-blooded and that some even had insulation in the form of feathers, even though they could not fly. The findings by Prasad and his team potentially drive a further wedge between dinosaurs and their reptilian kin.
For amidst the 256 fossilised eggs, Prasad and company discovered a particularly unique one. “There was a shell,” Prasad says. “But outside this shell, after a little space, there was another shell.”
“We weren’t sure initially since no one has reported such a phenomenon in the past. Although we found it some years back, we couldn’t gather enough courage to publish it,” says Prasad. “We looked at the reproductive morphologies of different reptiles and birds. We spent a lot of time studying this before we came to our conclusion.”
They reckoned that they had found an egg inside an egg, or what is known as an ovum-in-ovum egg. Such a phenomenon is known to occur in birds even today but has never been reported in any reptile. “The egg-in-egg phenomenon is a pathological condition. It happens when the bird undergoes stress. What happens is an egg does not get released but goes back to the ovary. So, over the unreleased egg, another yolk is released and subsequently goes to different parts of the oviduct, the albumen, the outer thin layer, followed by the eggshell. So, you now have one egg over another. You can see this even in the modern day with the eggs of chicken, for instance,” Prasad says.
These Titanosaurs weren’t the most attentive parents either. Unlike present-day birds, which incubate their eggs, the researchers believe the Titanosaurs laid them and left the hatchlings to fend for themselves
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The stress, according to him, could come in any form, from food scarcity to an environmental disturbance, like a flooding event or a volcanic eruption. Prasad does not get into the debate over whether the dinosaur was more closely related to birds than reptiles but points out that some researchers believe dinosaurs never went extinct but continued in the evolved form of birds.
These eggs could lead to more revelations in time. The researchers plan to scan two eggs, which although broken, are internally filled with sediments. They hope that if the mineralisation began before the egg was hatched or immediately after, they might be able to find fossils of bones and embryonic skeletons.
Finding fossils from such ancient periods isn’t easy in India. Since many of these locations tend to fall in areas close to mining areas, the researchers often find themselves locked out of these sites. Sometimes, wary of outsiders, locals put up resistance. There is also a large threat of poaching of these fossils. A few years ago, Verma reveals, some of the egg fossils he had donated to a museum were stolen.
But as large as the challenge of finding these fossils is the fear of retaining them. What happens to these ancient fossils once they are discovered? The old demand of setting up a national museum where these fossils could be deposited had begun to gather steam a few years ago, but it hasn’t yet come to fruition. This is foremost on the minds of researchers like Prasad, who retires later this year.
“When someone retires, the materials collected remain with the university department,” Prasad says. “But what happens if nobody is interested in them? They can throw it away.”