Throughout the first half of the 19th century, Mary Anning was busy transforming the world of paleontology. How did she do that? By going for walks on the beach. Specifically on Britain’s Jurassic Coast in Dorset, where she collected so many fossils and aroused so much public interest that even large museums could not keep up with demand.
To this day, visitors to the Dorset coast still hope to find their very own Jurassic fossil – and many do. But it’s not the only part of the UK where a simple walk on the beach can reveal an ancient relic or two: last year, in Penarth, Wales, another amateur paleontologist discovered a set of imprints in the ground that have been described in a new paper, published this week in the journal Geological Magazine, as the footprints of a 200-million-year-old Triassic-sauropod.
“We get a lot of inquiries from members of the public about things that could be clues,” said paleontologist Dr. Susannah Maidment from the Natural History Museum, London. ‘But many are geological features that can be easily confused with them. However, from the photographs [sent by amateur paleontologist Kerry Rees], we thought they were a pretty good candidate for something that could be lanes and that it would be worth taking a look at. ”
In fact, they were not the first paleontologists to do so. When they dug a little, they realized that the site had previously been explored by a handful of former excavation teams: one from France, another from nearby Cardiff University, and one that included Cindy Howells from the National Museum of Wales, one of the co-authors of the paper .
That story proved to be vital. While the team “thought the impressions we saw at Penarth were consistently distributed, so they suggested an animal was walking,” said another paleontologist at the Natural History Museum, Professor Paul Barrett, with revealing shifting edges around each imprint – “where mud had been pushed up … [it’s] characteristic of active movement through the soft soil, ”Barrett explained – the prints lacked something quite important: toes.
Now it sounds obvious, but feet tend to have toes – and as a result, footprints tend to have, well, toe prints. If the team could not find toes, then could they be sure they were looking at an old track?
Luckily, the French team took pictures of the place. NHM paleontologists could see that at the time there were actually features on the prints that resembled toes – the smaller impressions had simply been weathered away in the 10 years since the French study.
Now convinced that the impressions were footprints, the team was faced with another question: what did they do? Numbers like these are “not very common worldwide,” Barrett said, and “[the] registration of trias dinosaurs in [the UK] is quite small ”- but there were some clues nearby that could help them identify the heavy-footed hiker.
“We know there were early sauropods living in Britain at that time,” Maidment explained, “like bones of Camelotia, a very early sauropod, has been found in Somerset in rocks dating to the same period. “
And it’s one of those very early sauropods – though not necessarily Camelotia themselves – which the couple believes is responsible for the tracks. Technically, the discovery is one Eosauropus: a track made of an unknown species of extremely early sauropod. Over the next few dozen million years, the descendants of this trackmaker would evolve into some of the most iconic giants of the Jurassic era, such as Diplodocus and Brachiosaurus.
“We do not know [Camelotia] was the track maker, “Maidment added,” but that’s another clue that something similar it might have made these tracks. “
Unfortunately, the footprints themselves have to be left on shore to be washed away over time – it is very difficult for institutions to remove traces – so instead, the team has taken advanced 3D images of the tracks for future researchers to study.
“We think this is an interesting addition to our knowledge of Triassic life in the UK,” Barrett said. “Everything we can find from the period adds to our picture of what was going on at that time.”