A few weeks ago, Little Laos on the Prairie co-editor, Bryan Thao Worra presented in Minneapolis at Rev. Matt’s Monster Science on the dinosaurs of Laos. Here are some highlights!
Strangely enough, dinosaurs aren’t the first animals you think of when it comes to the land once known as the Realm of a Million Elephants. However, as we draw nearer to the release of the new Jurassic Park movie, it’s as good a time as any to think about the Terrible Lizards of Southeast Asia!
For our Minnesota readers, a little bit of context, we have almost 13,000 Lao and 60,000 Hmong who came to this state after the Secret War in Laos, which took place concurrently to the Vietnam War. Many of you may not realize that Laos is about the same size as Minnesota or Utah and nearly 70% of our homeland is covered in dense forest and mountains, as well as vast limestone caves and swamplands that would easily rival any episode of Land of the Lost. However, dinosaur research in Laos was understandably slow considering that the better part of the 20th century were spent fighting a war, and today over 30% of the countryside is still contaminated with unexploded weapons 45 years since the end of the bombing. In recent years, however, it has become clear there’s much more to explore, as we saw with recent discoveries of early humans in Laos. Some of the most promising sites are near Savannakhet and the Bolovens Plateau.
In many corners of Laos, you can find legends about the ancient protective serpents known as the Nak, or Naga. When the seasons were right they would frolic in the cosmic oceans to bring rain to the earth and reputedly dwelled in underwater cities, wherever pristine waters flow. They were also guardians of Buddhist teachings and today still adorn temples wherever there are sizeable Lao communities. Might dinosaurs have inspired these legends?
Alas, contrary to popular expectation, the leading dinosaur of Laos is NOT Laosaurus, who is a bipedal carnivore from the Ornithischia order discovered in Wyoming in 1878. But we do have the joy of being the nation where the Ichthyovenator was discovered, who is a type of fish-eating spinosaur. It’s not quite as terrifying as the Spinosaurus from Jurassic Park (which, frankly, takes tremendous liberties with what scientists believe spinosaurs were like), though. Ichthyovenator was first located in the southern province of Savannakhet in 2012, coincidentally the year of the Dragon. This makes it a fairly recent discovery. Ichthyovenator is noted for distinctively having two separate sails on its back and terrorized the fish of the Early Cretaceous period. The Ichthyovenator of Laos is, to date, the most complete spinosaurid dinosaur known from Asia, and even more complete than many other spinosaurid genera such as Oxalaia from South America. There have been toys made of the Ichthyovenator but these days you need to special order them.
Fans of dinosaurs and Laos may also be pleased to know that Savannakhet is also home to the Tangvayosaurus, or the Tang Vay lizard, a sauropod who’s related to other Titanosaurs. We know there are at least 4 types of dinosaurs you’ll find in Laos: Sauropods, Theropods, including relatives of Tyrannosaurus Rex, Iguanodons, and the Psittacosaurus. Discovered in nearby Thailand is Phuwiangosaurus (meaning “Phu Wiang lizard”) another titanosaur who roamed Southeast Asia. It was named to honor a Thai princess who had an interest in paleontology and geology.
Is Laos a great place for those with an interest in dinosaurs? If you’re lucky, you can find old coins and stamps from the 1990s when Laos went through its dinosaur craze, and Lao publisher Big Brother Mouse has produced several children’s books about dinosaurs. But if you really love dinosaurs you need to go visit the Dinosaur Museum of Savannakhet, which was unfairly maligned as the “Worst Dinosaur Museum in the World” by Tripologist. It’s a labor of love complete with a homemade dinosaur monument created by a man who loved dinosaurs with all his heart. And, while it would be considered bad form in any other place on earth; if you’re really nice, he has sometimes been known to let you touch the bones of ancient specimens he has on display there.
So, there you have it, from ancient legends to modern tourist traps, incredible spinosaurs and so much more to discover in the land of Laos! From now on, if someone ever asks you, for whatever random reason, “Were there dinosaurs in Laos?” you can proudly answer, “Yes, Virginia, there are dinosaurs in Laos.”
–Bryan Thao Worra, email@example.com