A series of strong storms have revealed more than 85 dinosaur footprints in the county of East Sussex, England. At least seven different species left these tracks over 100 million years ago, making them the most diverse and detailed collection from the Cretaceous Period ever found in the United Kingdom.
Researchers with the University of Cambridge uncovered the footprints between 2014 and 2018 after storm surges caused coastal erosion of sandstone and mudstone cliffs near the town of Hastings. This erosion revealed the tracks, which include footprints from an unknown species of stegosaur. The researchers have published their findings on the tracks in Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.
In addition to being really cool, these fossils can help tell us about how dinosaurs lived and interacted with their environment.
“A collection of footprints like this helps you fill in some of the gaps and infer things about which dinosaurs were living in the same place at the same time,” said Anthony Shillito, a PhD student in Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences and co-author of the research, according to the university’s website.
Part of Shillito’s research involves how dinosaurs may have affected the flow of rivers. “We also found evidence of footprints along the banks of river channels, so it’s possible that dinosaurs played a role in creating those channels,” he said.
But what’s probably most exciting to non-paleontologists is the striking level of detail in these footprints.
“As well as the large abundance and diversity of these prints, we also see absolutely incredible detail,” Shillito said. “You can clearly see the texture of the skin and scales, as well as four-toed claw marks, which are extremely rare.”
The area around Hastings is also where paleontologists discovered the first confirmed piece of fossilized dinosaur brain tissue in 2016. Environment is a key factor in preserving fossils like this, but so is human interaction. This year, Utah’s Red Fleet State Park struggled to prevent tourists from throwing preserved dinosaur footprints into a lake.
In the case of the Hastings footprints, no one is probably going to hurl these into the water anytime soon. However, human efforts to prevent coastal erosion may make it more difficult for paleontologists to discover the footprints that are still buried beneath sandstone and mudstone.