October 19, 2009
About 199 million years ago, on a small patch of land that is now preserved in the present-day African nation of Lesotho, there was an inclined slope next to a riverbed. Within hours, days, or even weeks of each other, several different dinosaurs climbed up and down the slope, leaving their footprints behind. Their tracks can still be seen there today, and as reported by paleontologists Jeffrey Wilson, Claudia Marsicano, and Roger Smith in the journal PLoS One, these tracks give us some clues as to how those dinosaurs moved.
Dinosaur footprints are effectively bits of fossilized behavior, and the Lesotho tracksite provides a rare look at how dinosaurs walked when moving up or down inclines. The site preserves the tracks of several ornithischian dinosaurs, which may have been similar to Lesothosaurus, and a single theropod dinosaur, which the researchers compare to Dracovenator. They handled the slippy slope in different ways.
The theropod dinosaur tracks show that it was walking parallel to the riverbank on the top of the slope before veering downwards to descend to the water. When it did so it stayed on two feet but it moved more slowly, as indicated by the shorter length between footprints in the portion where it was going downhill. This dinosaur also appears to have gripped into the ground with its foot claws, steadying itself as it moved downhill.
The ornithischians did something different. One of the ornithischian dinosaurs started on the riverbank and moved up the slope, and as it moved it changed the way it walked. On the riverbed it walked on all fours, holding its limbs out to the side and placing its entire foot on the ground. This was a slow-and-steady posture. As it began to move up the slope, however, the dinosaur moved its limbs closer to the midline of the body and stood on its tiptoes. Only when it reached the top of the slope did the dinosaur then stand up on two legs, keeping the same tip-toed posture.
What these tracks show is that the way dinosaurs handled walking on inclined surfaces was constrained by the type of bodies they had. The ornithischians changed their posture to cope with different obstacles and walked on all fours if they had to. The theropod, by constrast, could not do the same. It probably had arms that were too short to assist it in coming down the hill and thus relied on gripping the ground with its feet to stabilize itself.
At a time when we regularly see dinosaurs walking around on television and in movies this might seem kind of humdrum, but I think this description is still impressive. It provides us with a fleeting glimpse into the lives on animals that have been dead for hundreds of millions of years.
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