Paleontologists in South Africa have uncovered evidence of creatures walking on bird-like feet over 210 million years ago. Researchers Miengah Abrahams and Emese M. Bordy from the University of Cape Town studied distinctive three-toed footprints called “Trisauropodiscus” found at many fossil sites in South Africa.

For years, scientists debated what animals may have left these footprints and how many different types (“ichnospecies”) of Trisauropodiscus existed.

In their new study, the researchers re-examined the fossil footprint record. They looked at physical footprint fossils and published descriptions of Trisauropodiscus from four sites in Lesotho dating to the Late Triassic and Early Jurassic periods.

The team provided detailed descriptions of footprints along an 80-meter trackway they studied at Maphutseng. They identified two distinct footprint morphologies – one similar to certain non-bird dinosaurs, and the other very similar in size and shape to bird footprints.

Surprisingly, these footprints did not match any known animal fossil from that time and place in Africa. The oldest footprint, over 210 million years old, predates the earliest body fossil evidence of true birds by about 60 million years.

The footprints may have been left by early dinosaurs or even close bird-like relatives. However, the researchers note other reptile cousins of dinosaurs could have also evolved bird-like feet convergently.

Whoever left the footprints, they show bird-like feet first evolved in the Late Triassic period.

The researchers add that Trisauropodiscus footprints are found at many South African sites dating back around 215 million years ago.

The footprint shapes are consistent with more recent bird fossils, but a feathered dinosaur likely produced the Trisauropodiscus tracks. This discovery provides new clues about the distant past in Africa before current dinosaur and bird species lived.


Sources

Public Library of Science | Abrahams M, Bordy EM (2023) The oldest fossil bird-like footprints from the upper Triassic of southern Africa. PLoS ONE 18(11): e0293021. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0293021


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