Scientists Just Discovered Prehistoric Footprints Made By A Gigantic Amphibian Older Than The Dinosaurs

Using modern technology like drones and 3D scanners, researchers were able to detect footprints left by the crocodile-like rhinesuchid temnospondyl roughly 255 million years ago.

Rhinesuchid Temnospondyl

Dmitry Bogdanov/Wikimedia CommonsAn artist’s rendering of what rhinesuchid temnospondyl may have looked like more than 250 million years ago.

Finding dinosaur footprints is exciting enough. But at the Dave Green palaeosurface in the KwaZulu-Natal Province of South Africa, researchers were able to detect footprints left by a creature who lived millions of years before dinosaurs appeared on the Earth.

According to a study published in PLOS ONE by David P. Groenewald of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa and colleagues, researchers were able to use drones and 3D scanners to examine the site like never before. They detected prehistoric tracks left by the crocodile-like rhinesuchid temnospondyl, as well as smaller creatures, some 255 million years ago.

“The findings of the study are significant because they help to fill in gaps in our knowledge of these ancient animals,” the study’s authors explained, according to Eureka Alert. “The remarkable tracks and traces preserved on the Dave Green palaeosurface are a window onto the shoreline of the Karoo Sea roughly 255 million years ago, and provide direct evidence of how these animals moved and interacted with their environment.”

According to Eureka Alert, the impressions left by this prehistoric amphibian were found at the site of a former tidal flat or lagoon in the prehistoric Karoo Sea. Researchers were able to identify seven “body impressions” where rhinesuchid temnospondyl rested, as well as several “tail marks” from where the creature moved, crocodile-like, through the water.

Rhinesuchid Temnospondyl Markings

Groenewald et al., 2023, PLOS OneFrom left to right: an impression on the Dave Green paleosurface, the markings left by a modern alligator in Georgia, and an illustration showing how rhinesuchid temnospondyl may have moved.

Discover Magazine reports that the prehistoric creatures would have skimmed along the bottom of the body of water, occasionally making sharp turns. Like a crocodile, it writhed its way across the sandy floor, leaving a distinct impression. When idle, however, the creature would have laid in wait, using the eyes on the top of its skull to monitor what was happening around it.

The find is especially significant because rhinesuchid temnospondyl footprints can be elusive. Smithsonian Magazine explains that while fossils have given paleontologists a good idea of what this prehistoric creature looked like, discoveries like footprints tell a richer story about its behavior.

For example, paleontologists have long speculated about how rhinesuchid temnospondyl moved. Did they rely on their tail? Their limbs? Or some combination? According to Smithsonian Magazine, the footprints discovered in South Africa suggest that the prehistoric creature used its tail to propel itself.

“The trackways are unique, and as far as I know, the only Permian body impressions of a rhinesuchid amphibian of this size,” Groenewald told London’s Natural History Museum. “While it has been suspected that these animals swam similarly to modern salamanders and crocodiles, it was neat to find direct evidence in the fossil record.”

Dave Green Paleosurface

A. KrügerThe Dave Green paleosurface, which was once a tidal flat or lagoon on the edge of the Karoo Sea.

According to Discover Magazine, the rhinesuchid temnospondyl lived shortly before the Permian Mass Extinction Event destroyed 90 percent of life on Earth approximately 252 million years ago. Millions of years after that, sometime between 230 and 245 million years ago, the age of the dinosaur began when the famous creatures appeared en masse across the planet.

Though much is known about dinosaurs, Groenewald and his colleagues emphasized how their discovery helped illuminate the lives of even more prehistoric creatures. And the Dave Green paleosurface, named for the landowner who first discovered it, seems to be a promising site for future discoveries.

“I feel like each time I go, I find something new or something that I hadn’t seen before,” Groenewald told Smithsonian Magazine.

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