February 14th

Following Footprints

Yesterday, we discussed how dinosaur skeletons have become fixed in our imaginations. But skeletons are always reminiscent of carcasses, even when they are mounted and poised in dramatic life scenes. Dinosaurs left behind more than just their dead bodies. They left behind trace fossils made while they were alive. Perhaps none of these fossils are so vivid or invigorating as their fossilized footprints.

Sauropod tracks / Wikimedia Commons
Sauropod tracks / Wikimedia Commons

Dinosaur trackways can tell us a lot about the animals that left them in the muds and sands of the Mesozoic era. Using a special equation, scientists can measure the distance between the prints and, using the approximate length of a dinosaur’s limbs, determine how fast it was moving. Trackways can reveal behavior–herding, stalking, parenting, migrating. They also helped to clear up misconceptions about dinosaurs–that they were all slow-moving, that their limbs were sprawled out to their sides like those of lizards, and that they dragged their tails.

We find fossil footfalls all over the world. Their real power is not only in their value to science, but in the tangible way they connect us to the distant past. Place your hand where a dinosaur once placed its limb and you’ll feel the millennia slip away. Like you, the animal that left that print was alive for a short time, and only its ghostly impressions remain.

Share your favorite dinosaur trackway photos with us on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #TDIDinos.