By Mia Becker-Hansen | Head of Science and Technology
Lily Wilder, age four, was walking down the beach with her father looking for shells when she spotted what experts are calling “the best dinosaur footprint we’ve ever found in Britain”. It was at just the right height for an observant child to see. The footprint is thought to have been left 220 million years ago by a currently unidentified dinosaur species. The first dinosaurs appeared 230 million years ago, fossils previously found on this beach are a mix of early dinosaur and crocodilian species.
The museum’s palaeontology curator Cindy Howells described the find to us as “unbelievable”, the clarity of the footprint being remarkable compared to any other fossil found in Britain, “you can see the little muscle pads on the underside of the foot, you can see where the joints were, you can see the claws where they are coming to a point at the end, and we just don’t get that normally”.
Shortly after the discovery it was found that there was also a second, less discernible footprint on the same piece of rock. The footprint could provide insight to palaeontologists about early dinosaurs and how they walked.
The identity of the dinosaur responsible still remains a mystery. Cindy Howells continued, “The best we can do is compare it with footprints in other places, to tie it down exactly you need bones in the rock itself and there were just no bones in these rocks. So, we need to find something of the same sort of shape and size living nearby at that particular age”.
The track is a type of footprint called Evazoum, similar footprints of this kind have previously been found in Italy and North America, but not in the UK. It’s likely the dinosaur stood around 75 (29.5 inches) tall and 2.5 meters (about 8 feet) long, with a slender build and tail that walked on two feet and would have actively hunted small animals and insects for food.
Bendricks Bay, near Barry, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSI), known for being a fossil rich beach where many other fossils have been found before. Howells continued saying the beaches of South Wales are “actually one of the most important fossil footprint sites in Europe”. The rocks found in this area, including Lily’s fossil, were formed in the late Triassic period, the first and shortest of the three dinosaur ages. It was during this period that the giant supercontinent Pangaea began to gradually rift into two separate landmasses, and dinosaurs had only then started to evolve. At this time, Wales was part of a desert where there existed numerous mud pools. It was these mud pools that dinosaurs walked over, leaving an imprint which would then bake and dry in the hot sun, providing a “perfect environment” for the preservation of footprints which we can still find today.
Karl-James Langford from Archaeology Cymru, told us “the geology has been protected by the geology, in other parts of Britain we’ve not been as lucky to have this, otherwise across the whole of Britain there would be dinosaur footprints absolutely everywhere”.
In order to remove the fossil, after permission was granted (it is illegal to remove otherwise), the rock was carefully split with hammers and chisels to lift the top part with the footprint without affecting the surrounding environment.
Sadly, on the beaches of South Wales there are still many undiscovered fossils which may never be studied before they disappear. Langford continued “there are other dinosaur footprints that are being eroded away, unstudied, not loved, not protected… that footprint of Lily’s might be the last footprint ever to be found on that coastline, or it could be one of thousands, we don’t know”.
What should you do if you think you have found a fossil? Members of the public should only collect small loose fossils in small quantities. If you think you’ve found something special, you should directly contact Natural Resources Wales or a museum. “Contact Natural Resources Wales or a museum and tell us about it because we just want to help” says Cindy Howells, “notify people if you think you found something really special because we rely on the general public to find things, like Lily. We wouldn’t have seen that! That was on a loose rock way down the beach, we wouldn’t have gone down there, it was fortuitous that she found it at that particular point where storms has turned that rock over and over and over and it just happened to land with the footprint on the top.”.
You can go to the National Museum Cardiff now to see Lily’s ‘Dinosaur Footprint’ on display.Mia Becker-Hansen Science and Technology