Two fossilized footprints found at Dinosaur Cove in Victoria, Australia, were likely made by birds during the Early Cretaceous, making them the oldest known bird tracks in Australia.
The journal Palaeontology is publishing an analysis of the footprints led by Anthony Martin, a paleontologist at Emory University in Atlanta who specializes in trace fossils, which include tracks, burrows and nests. The study was co-authored by Patricia Vickers-Rich and Michael Hall of Monash University in Victoria and Thomas Rich of the Museum Victoria in Melbourne.
Much of the rocky coastal strata of Dinosaur Cove in southern Victoria were formed in river valleys in a polar climate during the Early Cretaceous. A great rift valley formed as the ancient supercontinent Gondwana broke up and Australia separated from Antarctica.
"These tracks are evidence that we had sizeable, flying birds living alongside other kinds of dinosaurs on these polar, river floodplains, about 105 million years ago," Martin says.
The thin-toed tracks in fluvial sandstone were likely made by two individual birds that were about the size of a great egret or a small heron, Martin says. Rear-pointing toes helped distinguish the tracks as avian, as opposed to a third nearby fossil track that was discovered at the same time, made by a non-avian theropod.
A long drag mark on one of the two bird tracks particularly interested Martin.
"I immediately knew what it was a flight landing track because I've seen many similar tracks made by egrets and herons on the sandy beaches of Georgia," Martin says.
Martin often leads student field trips to Georgia's coast and barrier islands, where he studies modern-day tracks and other life traces, to help him better identify fossil traces.
The ancient landing track from Australia "has a beautiful skid mark from the back toe dragging in the sand, likely caused as the bird was flapping its wings and
|Contact: Beverly Clark|
Emory Health Sciences