A single footprint left by a cat-sized dinosaur around 100 million years agohas been discovered in China by an international team of palaeontologists.

University of Queensland researcher Dr Anthony Romilio was part of the teamthat investigated the track, originally found by Associate Professor Lida Xingfrom the China University of Geosciences (Beijing).

“This footprint was made by a herbivorous, armoured dinosaur known broadly asa stegosaur – the family of dinosaurs that includes the famed stegosaurus,” DrRomilio said.

“Like the stegosaurus, this little dinosaur probably had spikes on its tailand bony plates along its back as an adult.

“With a footprint of less than six centimetres, this is the smallest stegosaurfootprint known in the world.

“It’s in strong contrast with other stegosaur prints found at the Chinesetrack site which measured up to 30 centimetres, and prints found in placeslike Broome in Western Australia where they can be up to 80 centimetres.”

The tiny footprint has similar characteristics of other stegosaur footprintswith three short, wide, round toe impressions.

However researchers found the print wasn’t elongated like larger counterpartprints discovered at the track sites, which suggests the young stegosaur had adifferent behaviour.

“Stegosaurs typically walked with their heels on the ground, much like humansdo, but on all fours which creates long footprints,” Dr Romilio said.

“The tiny track shows that this dinosaur had been moving with its heel liftedoff the ground, much like a bird or cat does today.

“We’ve only previously seen shortened tracks like this when dinosaurs walkedon two legs.”

Associate Professor Xing said that it was plausible young stegosaurs were toe-walkers.

“This could be possible as this is the ancestral condition and a posture ofmost dinosaurs, but the stegosaur could also have transitioned to heel-walkingas it got older,” Dr Xing said.

“A complete set of tracks of these tiny footprints would provide us with theanswer to this question, but unfortunately we only have a single footprint.”

Finding the tiny tracks on crowded track sites will be challenging for theresearchers.

“The footprints made by tiny armoured dinosaur are much rarer than thoseformed by other groups of dinosaurs,” Associate Professor Xing said.

“Now that our study has identified nine different dinosaur track sites fromthis locality, we will look even closer to see if we can find more of thesetiny tracks.”

The paper is published in Palaios (DOI: 10.2110/palo.2020.036) and includescollaborating researchers from China, the USA, Germany and Australia.

Images: A life reconstruction of the stegosaur trackmakers and palaeo-environment of 110 million years ago. Image: Kaitoge

A stegosaur footprint from the same site (more than 30cm long), Xingjiang,China. Photo credit – Lida Xing

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