Khursheed Dinshaw (India)
The Ghughua Fossil National Park is located in the state of Madhya Pradesh, India and contains plant fossils that are more than 65 million years old. It covers an area of approximately 27.34ha and consists of a museum and fossil trail.
The fossils inside the museum are on display in neatly arranged glass showcases. The most popular exhibit is the Eucalyptus tree fossil, which is kept on a bed of sand (Fig. 1). It was found in Ghughua and what makes it a highly coveted fossil is the belief that it originated from Gondwana (see below).
The fossil trail is a walkway where visitors can see the fossils in their natural setting. Since multiple fossils were discovered at one location, they are placed on circular platforms at that spot by the side of the walkway (Fig. 2).
It is due to the untiring efforts of Dr Dharmendra Prasad, who was the Statistical Officer of the district, that the fossils and park gained their due prominence. Fifty two years ago, S R Ingle from Science College in Jabalpur and Dr M B Bande from the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences in Lucknow spent time studying and identifying the fossils and their contribution is significant. On 5 May 1983, Ghughua was declared a Fossil National Park and a sum of Rs 150 lacs was allocated for developing it.
The fossils that can be seen here include leaves and seeds. Ghughua is also known for its palm fossils (Fig. 3) and the fossils represent an important chapter in the vegetation history of India. The majority of the fossils are petrified fossils, where minerals from the surrounding sediments have replaced the organic material.
Some of the fossils found at the park are impression fossils (Fig. 4). The impression of the organism can be seen on the surface. Fossil ferns provide examples of compression fossils, where the original material can be seen in a geochemically changed condition. Some Callistemon fossils have also been discovered in the park. (Callistemon is a genus of shrubs in the family Myrtaceae, which today includes Bottlebrush.)
Ghughua fossils predominantly represent plants that date back to the topmost Cretaceous to early Tertiary periods (Fig. 5).
This is around 65 million years ago. Thirty one genera belonging to 18 families have been identified. In addition to the abundant palm tree fossils, fossils of eucalyptus, mango and coconut trees have been recognised (Figs. 6 and 7).
Fossil plants of utrasum bead tree, banana, black plum and aonla, the latter known as Indian Gooseberry, can also be seen growing at the park. Angiosperms and bryophytes also grow in the park. Since these plants need moisture for their sustenance, it led to the theory that, in those times, the region was the recipient of a lot more rainfall compared to the amount that it receives today.
In fact, approximately 120 million years ago, Ghughua received an annual rainfall of about 2,000mm. Currently, it receives an annual rainfall of only 1,400mm. During that time, the flora also matched the climatic condition of the region with moisture rich forests. These Equatorial forests had abundant palms like Chrysalidocarpus (for example, the Areca Palm) and Arenga (a genus of palms) along with Licuala (another genus of palms). As fossils of a few shell bearing animals were discovered (Fig. 8 ), it was concluded that the area had a large body of water during the Tertiary.
Ghughua is well known for its fossils but a rather interesting feature about them is that, even though the plants are extinct, they closely resemble a number of current plants. These plants grow in the regions of the Western Ghats and in the northeast of India. Some of these examples include Hyphaenocarpon indicum and Palmoxylon ghuguensis, which are palm fossils and have their existing connections in Hyphaene indica and Chrysalidocarpus lutescens (the Areca Palm), respectively. Sterculioxylon shahpurensis has a living relative in Sterculia guttata (the spotted sterculia). Syzygioxylon mandlaens and Eucalyptus dharmendrae have their living connections in Syxygium cuminii and in the Eucalyptus genus, respectively.
Since fossils of living plants that are native to Australia and Africa are present at Ghughua, the continental drift hypothesis is further supported. That is, India, Africa and Australia were a single landmass (that is, Gondwana). As the landmass broke, the pieces drifted away giving rise to the continents of today.
All photographs are by Khursheed dinshaw.