Evidence of Dinosaur Trackways from China – Thousands of Prints

China’s eastern Shandong province, has provided a number of spectacular dinosaur fossils since formal scientific exploration and study began in the area in the late 1960’s. Most of the dinosaur discoveries have been centred around the city of Zhucheng.  Over the years a number of Cretaceous dinosaurs, many of them entirely new genera have been discovered.  However, official Chinese media has reported the discovery of not just body fossils (bones etc.), but a series of dinosaur trackways, (trace fossils), over 3,000 dinosaur prints in total.

Body fossils such as dinosaur bones, can be transported a long way from the area in which the animal lived and died.  For example, a dinosaur that died inland could be washed into a river as the result of a flash flood and the carcase carried out to sea, where eventually it sank.  This could result in the preservation and fossilisation of a land living animal in marine deposits, as in the case of the Dorset (England), Scelidosaurus.  Trace fossils on the other hand, preserve evidence of the activity of animals, their tracks, trails, burrows all being preserved as part of the fossil record.  Most trace fossils are direct, in situ evidence of the behaviour and the environment of the animal at the time the trace was made.  The 3,000 prints provide evidence of the time and the place where the dinosaurs roamed.

It is not the volume of prints that is most amazing, although this an exceptional number and represents a hugely significant find in itself, but the fact that at least six genera are represented by the tracks and that all the dinosaurs seemed to heading in the same direction.  Could all the plant-eaters have been running away from the Theropods (meat-eaters that left their tracks to)?  Or could this be evidence of a dinosaur migration?

Migration events are common in extant species.  Team members at Everything Dinosaur have witnessed such astonishing events in the natural world as the immense Gnu migration in Kenya, as huge herds of these grazers migrate in search of fresh pasture.  Reindeer in the northern hemisphere migrate enormous distances, following the Reindeer are the predators (Wolves) ready to pick off the weak and vulnerable animals that get left behind.

The dinosaur footprints include those of large meat-eaters, a spokesperson for the Chinese excavation team speculated that they could be Tyrannosaurs, as these types of large, carnivorous dinosaur are known from similarly aged rocks in the region.

Taking a Walk around “Dinosaur City”

Picture Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Zhucheng has been nicknamed “Dinosaur City” as more than 30 excavations have taken place in and around the city to date.  In 2008, the largest single dinosaur fossil location in the world was discovered in the area, with something in excess of 7,000 individual dinosaur fossil bones at this one locality.  The picture shows a Chinese researcher carefully walking over part of the fossiliferous site, in the foreground a number of bones are exposed, each marked with a white identity tag.

Scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences have been working to map the trackway site, the first study of the trackways took over three months to complete.  The prints vary in size from ten to eighty centimetres in length, further work will be undertaken to ascertain the speed of travel and to assess why all these animals moved in the same direction.  It is expected that the site will yield a number of new exciting discoveries and provide palaeontologists with a rare opportunity to study interrelationships between different elements of the environment’s mega fauna.

Zhucheng the “Dinosaur City” even has a dinosaur genus named after it, Zhuchengosaurus (Z. maximus), an enormous Late Cretaceous Hadrosaurine (duck-billed dinosaur).  This colossal animal, is the largest known Ornithopod in the fossil record.  Although, the only reconstructed skeleton is a composite mount (made up of parts from several individuals), the mounted dinosaur has a length of 16.6 metres and a height of 9.1 metres, although the posture that this duck-billed dinosaur has been displayed in (very upright and bipedal) has been questioned.  The small forelimbs, reminiscent of Mantellisaurus indicate that Zhuchengosaurus was very probably a facultative biped.

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