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Fossil tracks icon Produced in collaboration with
The University of Colorado

Fossil footprints through geologic time
II. The geography of fossil tracks

By Allison Vitkus, Karen Chin, and Martin Lockley

Continental drift animation
Click on the image to see 750 million years of the Earth's tectonic history. When the animation stops, click once to reset; click again to replay. Animation built from images provided by C.R. Scotese, PALEOMAP Project (www.scotese.com).

Animals have been walking, scurrying, or slithering on this planet for over 540 million years. During the long history of fossil track creation, environments on Earth have gone through many changes. Continents have moved and sea levels have risen and fallen many times — click on the graphic at right to see an animation of the movements of the continents over the last 750 million years. As a result, many of the oldest rocks on Earth have been lost through erosion and tectonic plate collisions. Nevertheless, fossil tracks have been found all over the world.

Earliest signs of locomotion

Early signs of locomotion
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Fossil tracks and trails

Fossil tracks and trails
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What depositional environments are tracks commonly found in?
Sedimentary rocks preserve records of past habitats. The types of rocks in an area give us clues as to whether the ancient environment was once an ocean shoreline, a shallow lake, a field of sand dunes, or another type of habitat. We tend to find more fossil tracks in sediments deposited in certain environments. As discussed in the How Tracks are Preserved section, burial of tracks improves their chances of fossilization. Thus, tracks made near bodies of water and sand dunes are more likely to be buried before they are destroyed than are footprints made in other environments.

Tracks are commonly found in areas associated with streams or rivers. Sediments deposited by rivers and streams are called fluvial deposits and include mud, silt, and sand. The track below (left) was made in mud that is thought to have been deposited by a flooding river. This particular type of track is called Dromaeopodus shandongensis and was probably made by a theropod dinosaur; theropods are a group of bipedal dinosaurs that include Tyrannosaurus and modern birds.

It is also common to find tracks in sediments that were deposited along the shores, or in the shallow waters of lakes (called lacustrine sediments). Below right are tracks of a web-footed bird found in the Green River Formation of Utah, USA. The Green River Formation is made up of lake sediments deposited during the Eocene Epoch and is known for containing many fossil fish skeletons.

Dromaeopodus track
 
Bird tracks
Left: Cast of Dromaeopodus shandongensis, a track made by a theropod dinosaur walking along a river after a flood. This track was made in what is now Shandong Province, China, during the Early Cretaceous Period. Most theropod tracks have three toes, but this one only left impressions of two toes. This is because the track was probably made by one of the theropods that had one toe with a very large claw that was held up (or "retracted" like a cat's claw) when the animal walked; the dinosaur that made this track would have been related to the Velociraptor dinosaurs that were featured in the movie, Jurassic Park (UCM 214.112).1 Right: Fossil tracks of a bird with webbed feet, walking in shallow waters of a lake (UCM 230.14)1

Fossil tracks associated with marine environments were commonly formed along the shores or in shallow waters of the ocean. The trace below left is called Isopodichnus and was probably made by an isopod or another type of crustacean. This trail was made in a shallow sea in North America during the Jurassic Period, when a series of inland seas flooded central western North America.

Tracks can also be preserved in eolian deposits. These are sediments that were moved by wind instead of water. Below right is a type of trackway called Paleohelcura. It is thought to have been made by a scorpion walking across sand dunes during the Permian Period.

Isopodichnus traces
 
Paleohelcura trackway
Left: Isopodichnus arthropod traces in shallow marine sediment (UCM 187.29).1 These traces were associated with pterosaur tracks! Right: Paleohelcura, a possible scorpion trackway on ancient sand dune deposits (UCM 139.97).1

Early encounters
with fossil footprints

Early encounters with fossil footprints
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Fossil tracks from around the world
Today, tracks have been found on every continent — including Antarctica! But since the continents have moved over time, fossil tracks may have been made on continents that were at a different latitude or orientation on Earth than they are today. Geologists have been able to reconstruct the approximate positions of the continents over time, and can help us figure out where on Earth the original fossil footprints were made. The following are examples of fossil tracksites that have been discovered on each of the current continents.

North America
Around 100 million years ago (during the Late Cretaceous Period) global sea levels were high, and a body of water called the Western Interior Seaway split North America into eastern and western land masses (see graphic below left). Large herds of dinosaurs left trackways as they moved north and south along the coastal plain of the western shoreline of the Western Interior Seaway. This extensive series of track-rich coastal plain sediments is called the Dinosaur Freeway.

The Dinosaur Freeway reveals about 80 tracksites in a single rock formation ranging from northern New Mexico to northern Colorado. These sites preserve tracks made by animals of varying sizes, and many indicate that the dinosaurs that made them were moving parallel to each other. Most of the tracks were made by ornithopod dinosaurs (a group of herbivorous dinosaurs that includes duck-billed and iguanodontid dinosaurs), though some were made by bipedal theropod dinosaurs (including shorebirds) and crocodilians.

One easily accessible fossil site along the Dinosaur Freeway is the Dinosaur Ridge portion of the Morrison-Golden Fossil Area National Natural Landmark near Denver, Colorado. This area contains many ornithopod and theropod tracks. The tracks are found in different layers of sandstone, indicating that the animals walked through the area at different times.

North America during the Cretaceous
 
Caririchnium track
Left: Map of North America during the Cretaceous Period, when the Western Interior Seaway split the continent. The Dinosaur Freeway was on the west side of the seaway, in what is now the western United States. The star marks Dinosaur Ridge, a site where dinosaurs made tracks on the shoreline when the Western Interior Seaway was not as extensive as in this image. Map courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey. Right: Cast of Caririchnium, an ornithopod dinosaur track from Dinosaur Ridge, a site along the Dinosaur Freeway in the western United States (UCM 209.1).1

Europe
An interesting European dinosaur tracksite can be found near Fátima, Portugal. The tracks were discovered in the bottom of the Pedreiros do Galinha limestone quarry in 1994. They were made in shallow marine sediments during the middle of the Jurassic Period, about 170 million years ago. Large, long-necked, herbivorous dinosaurs, called sauropods, apparently produced the footprints. These Galinha sauropod tracks are notable for being particularly large and well-preserved, and the site was dedicated as a national monument by the Portuguese government in 1996 (Monumento Natural das Pegadas dos Dinossáurios da Serra de Aire). Visitors to Fátima can see the tracks and learn more about them at the visitor center.

Continental distribution in the Jurassic
 
Sauropod tracks
Left: Reconstruction of the distribution of the continents during the early Jurassic Period, around 25 million years before the tracks at the Galinha site in Portugal were made. The red star denotes where Portugal was at that time, an island situated between the rest of Europe, North America, and Africa. Adapted from a map by C.R. Scotese, PALEOMAP Project (www.scotese.com). Right: Sauropod tracks at the Galinha fossil track site near Fátima, Portugal. Photo by Ines Saraiva (CC BY 2.0).

South America
Spectacular fossil tracks have been discovered high in the Andes in Bolivia. These tracks were made near the end of the Cretaceous Period around 66 million years ago. Since then, geologic forces have tilted the track beds, forming a steeply angled wall. Workers in a cement quarry discovered the site in 1994, and now over 5,000 dinosaur tracks have been found in what is now Parque Cretácico in Cal Orck'o. The site includes tracks made by ankylosaurs, armored herbivorous dinosaurs that walked around like prehistoric tanks. Ankylosaur tracks were thought to be rare before the discovery at Cal Orck'o. For many years, people doubted that ankylosaurs had lived in South America at all. Theropod and sauropod tracks have also been found at the site, as well as bones from turtles, fish, and crocodilians. Unfortunately a large section of the wall with the best trackways fell down in 2010. Although this section was lost, photographs of the site are among the most spectacular dinosaur track images ever taken.

Continental distribution in the Late Cretaceous
 
Dinosaur tracks
Left: Map of distribution of the continents near the end of the Cretaceous Period, 66 million years ago. The star marks the location of what is now Bolivia. Adapted from a map by C.R. Scotese, PALEOMAP Project (www.scotese.com). Right: Fossil tracks at Cal Orck'o, Bolivia, tilted at a steep angle. Photo by Jerry Daykin (CC BY 2.0).

Africa
The Laetoli area fossil beds in northern Tanzania preserve a series of tracksites famous for the footprints of early hominins (a group that includes humans and our close ancestors). Laetoli tracks demonstrate an unusual type of track fossilization because they were preserved in volcanic ash about 3.5 million years ago. These footprints are much younger than most of the fossil tracks described on this website, underscoring the fact that hominins have had a relatively short history on Earth compared to most other animals. At the time they were found, the Laetoli tracks provided the oldest evidence of hominins walking bipedally (walking on two legs). There has been debate about which species actually made the Laetoli tracks, but Australopithecus afarensis (the same species as the ancient skeleton known as "Lucy") appears to be the best track-maker candidate. Fossil tracks of birds, invertebrates, and mammals (including hares, horses, and hyenas) have also been found in the Laetoli sediments.

Continental distribution today
 
Laetoli hominin tracks
Left: Map of the modern world. The current position of the continents is very close to where they were 3.6 million years ago. The star marks Tanzania, where the Laetoli tracks were found. Adapted from a map by C.R. Scotese, PALEOMAP Project (www.scotese.com). Right: Cast of part of a trackway named Praehominipes laetoliensis, which are hominin tracks from Laetoli (UCM 230.115).1 The entire original trackway (from which the cast was made) is thought to have been made by three individuals — two adults and a child.

Asia
The Haenam fossil site in South Korea hosts over 500 dinosaur tracks, 400 pterosaur (flying reptiles related to dinosaurs) tracks, and thousands of web-footed bird tracks — some of the oldest of their kind known. The fossil tracks are found in the Uhangri Formation, which was deposited during the mid to Late Cretaceous, between about 100 and 72 million years ago. Most of the dinosaur tracks at this site were made by ornithopods, though some tracks are thought to have been made by sauropods. The pterosaur tracks include hind foot impressions as well as hand prints. Studies indicate that pterosaurs almost always walked on all fours, with their wings folded up so their hands touched the ground. The Haenam fossil site was designated as a national monument in 1998, and Uhangri Dinosaur Museum is located near the tracks.

Continental distribution in the Late Cretaceous
 
Uhangrichnus tracks
Left: Reconstruction of the distribution of the continents during the Late Cretaceous Period. Adapted from a map by C.R. Scotese, PALEOMAP Project (www.scotese.com). Right: Cast of Uhangrichnus, web-footed bird tracks from the Upper Cretaceous Uhangri Formation of South Korea (UCM 214.143).1

Australia
The Lark Quarry "dinosaur stampede" in Australia presents another example of a site with many Cretaceous dinosaur tracks. The tracksite was discovered in the 1960s and is now preserved in the Lark Quarry Conservation Park. Some scientists think that the thousands of fossil footprints represent a stampede of a mixed group of small dinosaurs reacting to the appearance of a large carnivorous theropod dinosaur. Other scientists suggest that Lark Quarry was simply a well-used route for dinosaurs along the edge of a river. The Lark Quarry Dinosaur Trackways site is about 110 km from Winton in central Queensland.

Continental distribution in the Late Cretaceous
 
Uhangrichnus tracks
Left: Map of the world during the Late Cretaceous Period. The star marks the area of Lark Quarry Dinosaur Trackways site. Adapted from a map by C.R. Scotese, PALEOMAP Project (www.scotese.com). Right: Photograph of some of the Lark Quarry Dinosaur Trackways. The large tracks in the left side of the photo are thought to have been made by a large predator. A building has been erected around the fossils to protect them. Original photo by me_whynot (CC BY 2.0).

Antarctica
The continent of Antarctica used to be further north and much warmer. Antarctica's current frozen climate makes it difficult to find many fossils there but exciting discoveries have been made. An international team of scientists found fossil vertebrate tracks in the Queen Alexandra Range of Antarctica during an expedition to the continent in 1990-1991. These tracks were made during the Triassic Period and were probably made by early synapsids, a group that includes mammals and their extinct relatives. The trackmaker may have been Lystrosaurus, an ancient relative of modern mammals. Fossil bones of Lystrosaurus have been found in Antarctica, as well as in Africa and India. The distinctive distribution of this terrestrial animal provided important early evidence for the fact that the continents have moved over time.

Continental distribution in the Triassic
 
Synapsid tracks
Left: Map of the world during the Triassic Period, when many of today's continents were part of a supercontinent called Pangea. Notice how Antarctica was connected to Africa and India. Adapted from a map by C.R. Scotese, PALEOMAP Project (www.scotese.com). Right: Early synapsid track from the Triassic Period of Antarctica. Image from MacDonald et al. 1991.

Continents and fossil distribution
A reconstruction of the arrangement of the continents during the Triassic Period that is supported by the distribution of certain fossils. Fossils of Lystrosaurus, for example, have been found in Antarctica, Africa, and India. Since this animal was terrestrial, the fact that it is found on these continents offered early evidence that these land masses were once connected. Image courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

References
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1UCM refers to the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. The collection was originally built by the University of Colorado Denver, and was displayed at the Dinosaur Tracks Museum on the Denver campus. The fossil tracks are now housed at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History in Boulder, Colorado, and the images of these specimens are courtesy of the University of Colorado.

NSF logo This site was funded by the National Science Foundation under award no. DBI 0955516