When dinosaurs roamed the earth, they left footprints in the ground, just like you do when you walk over soft ground like mud or sand. Occasionally, under special circumstances, these footprints were preserved for millions of years and we have been lucky enough to discover and study some of them.
Dinosaurs are incredible. They’re exciting and fascinating creatures that we just love to learn about. Thanks to some amazing archaeological discoveries and the advances in modern sciences and technology, we now know a lot about dinosaurs. Part of how we know so much about dinosaurs is by studying fossils.
We learn most of what we know about dinosaurs by studying two different types of fossils; the fossilised remains of dinosaur bones, also known as “body fossils”, and trace fossils, which we’ll be looking at today. Trace fossils include fossilised footprints, skin imprints, feathers and even dinosaur poop!
Read also How dinosaur fossils are formed
How dinosaur footprint fossils are formed
Fossils of dinosaur footprints are also known as ichnites. They are formed when an imprint of a dinosaur’s footprint fills with sediment, like sand, or small rocks and are then compressed by the earth.
The footprints themselves were formed when the dinosaurs stepped on ground soft enough to leave an imprint of their foot. How soft the ground was and how heavy the dinosaur was would have affected whether or not the dinosaur left a footprint when it stepped. While dinosaurs will have left millions of footprints all over the world, fossils of these prints are relatively rare.
How dinosaur footprints are preserved
For dinosaur footprints to be preserved, certain conditions would need to be met!
First of all, the dinosaur would need to be walking on ground that is not too soft, not too wet, not too dry and not too hard. Ground that is too soft or wet has the potential to collapse in on itself, meaning that no clear footprint would be left behind. Ground that is too dry or too hard may have meant a footprint that is too shallow to be preserved or even no imprint in the ground at all.
You should try experimenting by leaving your own footprints in different places. A great place to do this is the beach, where you’ll find a variety of ground conditions and be able to find the sand that is just right for you!
After a clear dinosaur footprint had been left in the ground, it would have needed to bake in the sun until it was hard enough to form a mould that wouldn’t be distorted when covered. A set of footprints then covered in ash, sand or similar material would then have a chance at being preserved for us to discover millions of years later.
Where are dinosaur footprints found?
Dinosaur footprint fossils are commonly found where there were prehistoric mudflats or coastlines that have long since disappeared.
Dinosaur footprints can be found in all kinds of unexpected places. This is partly due to the fact that geology has changed so much over the millions of years that have passed since their existence.
A fun example of an unusual dinosaur footprint find is the fossilised imprints that appear on the vertical cliff edge at the Cal Orcko site in Bolivia. Because of the huge geological shifts in that area over time, the dinosaur tracks appear to imply the dinosaurs were walking straight upwards, which, of course, isn’t the case.
What we can learn from fossilised dinosaur footprints
Dinosaur footprints can teach us about dinosaur behaviour and dinosaur anatomy. Each footprint or set of footprints offers something different to those who study it.
Where there are multiple footprints, we might learn about a dinosaur’s gait or the speed at which it was likely to be moving. Where there are several distinctive types of dinosaur footprints that were left at the same time, we might learn about dinosaur social behaviours. Where there is very soft ground it might be possible that an imprint of the skin or claws is left in the footprint, allowing us to learn more about the dinosaur’s anatomy.
The spacing between dinosaur prints would allow scientists to study their stride and to be able to tell how far apart their legs were, as well as at what speed they were moving at the time.
Many similar overlapping prints from different animals of the same species or classification could indicate herd behaviour and let us know that certain kinds of dinosaurs were more likely to cohabit than others.
While body fossils allow us to distinguish between dinosaur species, this is much harder to do with fossilised dinosaur footprints. It’s usually impossible to tell which species of dinosaur has left a particular print behind, although we can often tell what classification that dinosaur was.
For example, scientists would usually be able to identify whether or not a dinosaur was four legged (quadrupedal) or walked on two legs (bipedal) by looking at a set of fossilised footprints.
What dinosaur left the biggest footprints
It might not surprise you to learn that the biggest dinosaurs left the biggest footprints behind. These dinosaurs are, of course, the Sauropods. Sauropods are long necked, four legged dinosaurs that ate plants and had long tails.
Which dinosaur left three-toed footprints
When we think about dinosaurs, perhaps the most distinctive dinosaur footprint that comes to mind is the classic theropod footprint. Theropods were bipedal predators that left behind dinosaur footprints with three toes. These three-toed dinosaur footprint fossils were left behind by species like T-Rex, Velociraptor and Baryonyx.
Dinosaur footprint fossils on display
Fossilised dinosaur footprints can be viewed in many different ways. There are plenty of dinosaur footprints on display in museums across the world, including the Natural History Museum in London. Some dinosaur footprints are preserved at the site where they were discovered and can still be seen there to this day.
One of the best places to see dinosaur footprints in the world is Lark Quarry in Queensland, Australia, where over 3000 individual footprints can be found in the tennis court sized rock surface.
Here in the UK, there are also a number of places where you can see dinosaur tracks, one of which is Keates Quarry in Dorset. Keates Quarry is a National Trust site where more than 100 fossilised dinosaur tracks are preserved in a flat layer of rock in the quarry. They were discovered in 1997 when the site was still a working quarry.
Come and meet our “living” dinosaurs at Paultons Park
Now that we’ve learned about dinosaur footprints and how they are formed, wouldn’t you like to come and experience the prehistoric land of the Lost Kingdom here at Paultons Park? We’ve got tons of exciting rides, attractions and adventures to be had and you can even meet our “living” animatronic dinosaurs in ALIVE: Dinosaur Encounter!