Dinosaur Footprints of Unimaginable Age Found Romping Along England’s Coastline
Experts in the United Kingdom have announced a major discovery of dinosaur footprints, that are at least 100 million years old and possibly older. The prints were found in Hastings, Sussex on the south-east coast of England. They are believed to be the most diverse and important collection of prehistoric footprints yet found in England. This find is one that is exciting the experts because it is allowing them to better understand dinosaurs at a particularly important time.
A small theropod footprint. (Neil Davies / University of Cambridge)
Storms Reveal Ancient Footprints
For the past four years experts from the world-famous Cambridge University have been engaged in an extensive study of an area on the coast of Sussex, neat Hastings. Their research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, allowing them to investigate a section of the coast that has suffered heavy erosion because of storms. The erosion means that rocks in cliffs are now exposed and bear traces of prehistoric animals. Since 2014 until the present, the team have been looking for the remains of dinosaurs on the wind-swept Sussex coast and their hard work and effort has really paid off.
A view of the cliffs near Hastings where the footprints were found. (Neil Davies / University of Cambridge)
Since the start of their excavations, 85 dinosaur footprints have been identified in the exposed sandstone cliffs mid-way between Hastings and Fairlight. The prints range in size from less than half an inch (2cm) to more than 23 inches (60cm) across. The set is remarkably varied and very well-preserved and according to the BBC “even the skin, scales, and claws are easily visible.” The local newspaper the Hastings and St Leonards Observer reported that they are the “largest and best preserved found in the area” for many years.
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A close up of skin impressions from an iguanodontian footprint. (Neil Davies / University of Cambridge)
Seven Species of Dinosaur Footprints Found
It is believed that some seven different species of dinosaur footprints have been unearthed. Among the prints uncovered is one that belonged to a member of the iguanodontian family, a species of prehistoric herbivores, which was about 9 feet (2.8 meters) tall. Then there are some traces of an ankylosaur, a heavily armored creature and one of the last of the true dinosaurs, which measured some 18 feet (6 meters) in length. Another print was possibly from a stegosaur and there are some from members of the sauropod species, possibly related to the well-known Brontosaurus. There are also footprints, of some ‘predatory theropod dinosaurs’ reports The Independent .
A large Iguanodontian footprint, with mud squeezing up between the toes. (Neil Davies / University of Cambridge)
How Old Are the Footprints and Fossils?
Based on an examination of the prints it has been calculated that they are between 100 and 140 million years old. This would mean that they belong to the early Cretaceous period, which saw the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. Apart from the footprints, some fossils have also been found mainly of plants but also of some invertebrates.
An Area Rich in Hidden Fossils
This part of the Sussex coast has long been a rich source of dinosaur fossils since the early nineteenth century. This area played a particularly significant role in the development of the science of paleontology and the first known Iguanodon was discovered here. The discovery of the sets of footprints is the second significant find here in recent years, in 2016 some ‘fossilized dinosaur brain tissue’ was found according to Cambridge University.
Two large Iguanodontian footprints with skin and claw impressions. (Neil Davies / University of Cambridge)
Understanding the World of the Dinosaur
The Cretaceous-era footprints are especially important for experts, because there are so few complete dinosaur skeletons available. Science Magazine reports that the “collection’s diversity and detail will provide new insights into the creatures of the Cretaceous.” Anthony Shillito, a PhD student has stated that the finds can “fill in some of the gaps and infer things about which dinosaurs were living in the same place at the same time,” reports the Cambridge University website.
A close up of a claw imprint. (Neil Davies / University of Cambridge)
It seems that the impressions were originally made near a water source. They can be compared to other discoveries and this can allow researchers to identify what were the key species in this era. Furthermore, the footprints are allowing experts to determine how the prehistoric creatures impacted on their environment, for example, did they influence the flow of rivers because of their sheer size and extraordinary bulk.
Scientists Now Hope for More Erosion!
The experts will be hoping for another severe winter, because the storms on the Sussex coast will reveal more prints and maybe even important fossils. There are great hopes that there are still major finds locked in the sandstone and that erosion will disclose them to the light for the first time in millions of years. However, costal defenses are planned for the Hastings area and this could slow erosion and mean that fewer dinosaur traces and fossils will be exposed in the coming years.
Top image: A large Iguanodontian footprint. Source: Neil Davies / University of Cambridge
By Ed Whelan