|The fossil of Protoceratops displaying a fossil |
footprint. The top panel displays the fossil while
the bottom displays the bones and footprint
positions in detail
The 80 million year old Protoceratops fossil was discovered by a team of Polish and Mongolian palaeontologists in the rich fossil beds of the Gobi Desert in 1965. The re-examination of the fossil revealed a single fossil footprint hidden within the cluster of bones. Polish palaeontologists Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki and Tomasz Singer spotted the footprint while they were preparing the fossil for display at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw.
His colleague, University of Colorado at Denver geologist Martin Lockley, told BBC Nature that this really was 'a first.' Generally, we find it very hard even to match dinosaurs with their footprints at the species level,' he explained. 'We have a couple of examples in the literature where we say, we're almost certain that this footprint belongs to this species, but this is an animal actually dead in its tracks.'
Prof Lockley suggests that some of the rock discarded when scientists prepare dinosaur skeletons could contain ancient clues about the lives of the extinct beasts. 'Traditionally, palaeontologists look for nice skeletons, and in order to get those out of the rock, they're discarding the matrix. So lots of tracks have been overlooked.' During the 1990s many spectacular fossil footprints were discovered in the deserts of China and Mongolia, the study of trace fossils received far more attention from the scientific community.
Dr Paul Barrett, a palaeontologist from London's Natural History Museum explained 'whereas track ways usually come from beach deposits, bones are normally found in river channels, where perhaps the animals drowned and were quickly buried and preserved. So this discovery is a neat one-off. Unfortunately, though,' he added, 'this doesn't solve any other dinosaur mysteries for us; it doesn't help us to match another species to its footprints.' Despite this, the discovery is still fantastically rare and has given us some small insight into the lifestyle of Protoceratops.
Prof Lockley hopes that it will make dinosaur hunters pay more attention to the footprints they might be missing. 'Since this part of Mongolia was desert during the Cretaceous period, it's not thought to be ideal for finding tracks,' he said. 'But I think a lot of these dinosaurs could have been caught in flash flooding. They could have been buried in their nests - just hunkered down. And if you want to become a fossil, you need to get buried quickly.
'This (fossil) shows that some things don't come to light unless you're looking for them,' Prof Lockley told BBC Nature. 'This discovery is a very small inroad into a very big gap.' He said that studying tracks was crucial to learning more about dinosaur behaviour. 'When palaeontologists deal with skeletons, they're dealing with death and decay. But with tracks you can tell how much it weighed, how it moved, if it was running or walking. You can even tell if it was limping. With tracks you're dealing with the living animals.'