Dinosaur footprints take museum scientists back in time

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In 2020, amateur paleontologist Kerry Rees contacted the Angela Marmont Center at the Natural History Museum to report finding what she suspected to be dinosaur footprints on Penarth Beach in Wales. The images she provided were sent to the Museum’s paleontologists, researcher Dr. Susannah Maidment, and merit researcher Professor Paul Barrett.

The couple were initially skeptical. Dr Maidment explains, “We get many inquiries from the public about items that could be leads, but many of them are geological features that can easily be mistaken for them. However, based on the photographs, we thought they were a pretty good candidate for something that could be leads and would be worth taking a look at.

After consulting with colleagues, it was discovered that the site had previously been studied by a French team and a team from Cardiff University, as well as by Cindy Howells of the National Museum of Wales, who is co-author of the new article. With differing opinions on impressions, the researchers decided to work together and continue the investigation.

Dr Maidment and Professor Barrett visited the site to study it and take action. Professor Barrett explains: “We thought the impressions we saw in Penarth were systematically spaced out to suggest a walking animal. We also saw displacement rims where the mud had been pushed up. These structures are characteristic of active movement through loose soil. ‘

Less noticeable however were the toe marks, the telltale sign of an animal print. Fortunately, the French team who had already inspected the site 10 years ago had images of the footprints with less alteration that showed features such as toe prints. This not only provided the team with further proof that the prints were indeed footprints, but also suggested what the identity of the animal that created them might have been.

The team now believe impressions are an example of Eosauropus, which is not the name of a dinosaur but of a type of track thought to have been made by a very ancient sauropod or a close relative of the sauropods, the group of dinosaurs that would later include the famous Diplodocus.

Dr Maidment comments: “We know that the first sauropods lived in Britain at the time, as bones of Camelotia, a very ancient sauropod, have been found in Somerset in rocks dated to the same period. We don’t know if this species was the trail maker, but this is another clue that suggests something like this could have been the trailblazer.

Dinosaur tracks can provide a wealth of behavioral information to those who study them. They can show herd movements and provide data on how well an animal may have walked.

Professor Barrett concludes: “These types of leads are not particularly prevalent in the world, so we think this is an interesting addition to our knowledge of Triassic life in the UK. The record for Triassic dinosaurs in this country is quite small, so anything we can find from the period adds to our picture of what was going on at that time.

Most institutions, including the Natural History Museum, do not generally collect footprints as storing them can be difficult with trails sometimes stretching for several hundred meters. These leads have now been extensively investigated in the field and precisely documented for future study using advanced 3D imaging techniques.

The footprint, left over 200 million years ago by one of the first dinosaurs, will remain on the shore of Penarth until the tide eventually erodes them. In the meantime, it is hoped that those who see them can be inspired to learn more about natural history.

The study Upper Triassic dinosaur tracks from Penarth, South Wales is published in the journal Geological Review.

Notes to Editors

Natural History Media contact: Tel. : +44 (0) 20 7942 5654/07799690151 E-mail: press@nhm.ac.uk

Images available for download here.

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