Mysterious bird-like footprints in Africa predate the existence of birds: ScienceAlert

Researchers have taken a closer look at some bird-like footprint fossils in Africa, dating back about 210 million years.

These footprints are somewhat mysterious: fossils of even the earliest bird ancestors don’t appear for another 60 million years.

These footprints were known For several yearsBut here a team from the University of Cape Town in South Africa wanted to conduct a more comprehensive analysis of the fossils, which had already been taken from four separate sites in the area.

Looking in particular at records at the Mabutseng site, an 80-meter (262 ft) stretch of tracks, researchers were able to identify two separate types (or morphotypes) of footprints, beneath the Trisauropodecus category – This is the name previously assigned to the bird-like three-toed footprints.

“Our findings suggest that there are two distinct Trisauropodiscus species, one of which resembles bird footprints.” He writes Geologists Minja Abrahams and Emesy Purdy in their paper.

The first morphotype showed larger, longer feet, with toes closer together, researchers say. These footprints are no different from any other type of fossilized footprints. AnomoebusWhich researchers believe was left by a certain type of dinosaur.

As for the second type, these footprints were about half their size on average, wider than they were longer, and the toes were more slender. This morphotype is more obscure, but closer to modern birds.

Image next to a false color depth map of a typical print: first morphotype (left) compared to the second morphotype (right). (Abraham et al., One plus2023)

Researchers believe that the footprints that fall into the second morphological category were left by the ancestors of the first birds. In other words, dinosaurs may have begun to exhibit some bird-like traits much earlier than the fossil record indicates.

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“These tracks in South Africa, dating from the Late Triassic, strongly resemble the tracks of modern Cenozoic birds, confirming the convergent pedal morphology of late Mesozoic archosaurs and strongly showing that the origin of bird-like foot morphology is at least 210 million years old.” . old,” He writes Researchers.

The mystery of what ancient monster actually left these tracks remains to be solved, but researchers believe it could have been some kind Three-toed archosaur – a branch of the evolutionary tree that left us with both birds and crocodiles today.

While the search continues for a fossil that can tell us more about the animal responsible for these footprints, the research offers a fascinating peek back hundreds of millions of years — and how birds have evolved since then.

“Fossil tracks can be used to infer ancient diversity, ethology and evolutionary trends.” He writes Abrahams and Purdy.

“This is particularly useful for deep time periods during which the early history of an animal group is based on limited fossil skeletal material.”

The research was published in One plus.

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