Footprints Exposed on a Merseyside Beach Reveal Irish Sea “Serengeti”
Hundreds of perfectly preserved human footprints, dated between 9,000 and 1,000 years old, have been exposed on Merseyside’s Formby Beach on the Irish Sea. And that’s not all. The ancient footprints were not just made by humans, but also by wolves, lynx and wild boars, who collectively formed a rich intertidal ecosystem which existed before there was a massive decline in biodiversity 5,500 years ago. One of the footprints, that of an adolescent, even reveals the outline of a bunion on the little toe.
The Merseyside footprints included a footprint bed dating back to the Mesolithic era about 8,500 years ago which was full of red deer hoofprints. (Jamie Woodward / University of Manchester)
Reconstructing Past Ecosystem Using Merseyside Footprints
Employing a brand-new program of radiocarbon dating, the researchers were able to point out a very simple fact. As the sea has eroded away layers of ancient, compressed mud over time, new layers of footprints have been revealed. The deeper the layers, the earlier their creation. It is the first time that a faunal history and ecosystem has been reconstructed using only ancient footprints.
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In total, there are 31 footprint beds, pointing to a dramatic change in the area’s ecosystem. This method primarily allows for reconstruction of environmental and ecological change, without the use of any archaeological records or fossils. The Formby Beach footprints exposed in Merseyside have allowed scientists to trace a natural history of Britain from Mesolithic to medieval times, 9,000 to 1,000 years ago.
Archaeologists are uncovering fascinating details about the rise and fall of biodiversity based on the Merseyside footprints found at Formby Beach, seen here. This part of the Irish Sea coastline is home to one of the largest collection of prehistoric animal tracks on Earth. (Jason Wells / Adobe Stock)
Changing Coastal Habitats: A Rise and Fall in Biodiversity
The Merseyside footprints are the subject of a fascinating new study published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, which analyses how the coastal environment transformed over thousands of years. This has been facilitated by a rise in global sea levels after the Pleistocene, or the waning of the last Ice Age which took place 9,000 to 6,000 years ago, which allowed humans to settle along the waterfront and shoreline. The sandy stretch along the north west England coast is already home to the largest collection of prehistoric animal tracks on Earth.
“The Formby footprint beds form one of the world’s largest known concentrations of prehistoric vertebrate tracks,” explained Dr. Alison Burns, lead author of the study, who spent six years undertaking field research of the Merseyside footprints. “Well-dated fossil records for this period are absent in the landscapes around the Irish Sea basin,” stressed Burns. “This is the first time that such a faunal history and ecosystem has been reconstructed solely from footprint evidence.”
The oldest footprints are from a time when the coastline was at least 30 kilometers (18.6 mi) further away than today. During this era, “the tidal muds were teeming with animals” like aurochs, red deer, roe deer and predators like the wolf and the lynx, reports the BBC. All of these species are now extinct in the United Kingdom.
This development allowed the coastline to become “a hub of human and animal activity,” according to the researchers from the University of Manchester. In the first few thousand years that succeeded the last glacial period, European Mesolithic coastal landscapes were vibrant ecosystems that were brimming with large animals – grazers and predators alike. This allowed it to be seen as “a northwest European Serengeti.”
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Habitat Shrinkage: Factors and Reasons
It was around 7,000 years ago that the Neolithic Revolution hit Great Britain, between 5000 and 4500 BC, though it had made its impact in Western Asia between 11000 and 9000 BC. This period in history saw the widespread transition of hunter-gathering nomads to settled agriculture and small, permanent settlements. One of the world’s most famous monuments – Stonehenge – was possibly built by the Neolithic people as well.
The study assessed the multitude of factors that were drivers in all around habitat shrinkage that was brought about by a rise in sea levels, on one hand. On the other hand, a rise and development in settled agricultural economies and hunting pressures from an emerging human population posed a threat to biodiversity in general.
“Many of the biodiversity hotspots now are in coastal environments,” explained Professor Jamie Woodward from the University of Manchester, co-author of the study. “And those environments are threatened by rapid sea-level rise now, so there are lessons we can learn about how habitats can become degraded and disconnected, which will affect the animals that can survive there.”
This red deer hoofprint discovered in the ancient mud on Formby Beach was dated to about 8,500 years old and was just one of the many Merseyside footprints found by archaeologists. (Jamie Woodward / University of Manchester)
Merseyside Footprints Teach Lessons for the Future
Groups of so-called “ordinary people,” including adolescents, families, toddlers, men, and women, have all found their footprints in these layers of mud. The Merseyside Formby Beach footprints are fragile, however, reports ITV News, and require the careful cooperation of visitors. The threats to biodiverse environments, past and present, will also help navigate the crisis of biodiversity of our current times.
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“Assessing the threats to habitat and biodiversity posed by rising sea levels is a key research priority for our times – we need to better understand these processes in both the past and the present,” stressed Woodward. “This research shows how sea level rise can transform coastal landscapes and degrade important ecosystems. The Formby footprint beds form one of the world’s largest known concentrations of prehistoric vertebrate tracks. Well-dated fossil records for this period are absent in the landscapes around the Irish Sea basin.”
Top image: Footprint beds at Formby Point. Source: Jamie Woodward / University of Manchester
By Sahir Pandey