Looking up at the ceiling, these miners working at Australia’s Ipswich Coal Mine in the 1960s must have had a big surprise. There were “bird” tracks that were quickly attributed to the tracks of a dinosaur. The whole question is to know what beast could have left these traces. A new analysis allows us to answer them.
No big raptor
For almost fifty years, paleontologists estimated that these footprints, or rather counter-evidence since they appear in three dimensions on the ceiling, had been deposited by a large theropod dinosaur, of the raptor type, 220 million years ago. According to the first analyzes, the animal must have measured at least two meters in height of the legs, which made it the largest theropod known from the end of the Triassic. But several specialists doubted the veracity of these conclusions, mainly because they were not based on a direct examination of the prints, but on drawn representations and some photographs. No one can access it anymore, as the mine has been abandoned since 1964, but just before its closure, a team of geologists from the Queensland Museum mapped the track and cast casts of the tracks.
How are counterprints formed?
Counterprints are three-dimensional convex molds formed by a series of processes of petrification, erosion, and human intervention. The dinosaur that left its footprints walked on a ground made up of plant debris that sank under its weight. Subsequently, these cavities were filled with silt or sand. After millions of years, the vegetal layer was transformed into charcoal that was extracted by the miners, which revealed the traces that correspond to the shaping of the soil of the upper layer.
It was these casts that were studied by an international team led by Anthony Romilio of the University of Queensland, a paleontologist who has spent much of his career tracking Australian dinosaurs and their footprints. From the cast, he made a virtual 3D model of the dinosaur footprint that was emailed to team members around the world for study. Their findings, published in the journal Historical Biology, ended 50 years of misinterpretation.
3D image of the 220 million year footprint. Credit: Anthony Romilio.
But a good sized herbivore
“The more we looked at the shapes and proportions of the footprints and toes, the less they resembled the footprints left by predatory dinosaurs, this monstrous dinosaur was undoubtedly a much friendlier plant eater,” Hendrik explains in a statement. . Saurierwelt Paläontologisches Museum in Berlin and co-author of the study. The dinosaur in question is a prosauropod that must have measured 6 meters in length and 1.4 m in height at the legs. These animals, long-necked herbivores, are the remote premises of the gigantic dinosaurs that lived a few tens of millions of years later, such as the titanosaur or the diplodocus. The footprints left at Ipswich represent the oldest evidence for the presence of this family of dinosaurs.
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