Planet Earth

Tracking Dinosaur Family Values

Fossil footprints show parental care in mid-Jurassic, meat-eating dinosaurs.

By Jocelyn SelimMar 16, 2004 6:00 AM


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Did fierce, predatory dinosaurs value their family ties? In the 1920s, paleontologists working in Mongolia discovered fossilized nests, which hinted that some dinosaurs incubated their eggs. More recently, some researchers have interpreted adult and baby dinosaur tooth marks seen next to each other on the same fossilized bones as signs of shared meals (Discover, June 2003). Now a set of mid-Jurassic footprints found on the Isle of Skye in Scotland adds to the evidence for posthatchling parental care among even the most savage meat eaters.

The prints include the 10-inch, three-toed talon mark of a bipedal dinosaur alongside 25 similar three-inch tracks believed to represent about a dozen or so young. Neil Clark, the Glasgow University paleontologist analyzing the find, cannot precisely identify which species made the tracks, but he estimates that the mother would have been about 12 feet from nose to tail, and the young would have been the size of large turkeys. The talon marks imply that the animals were built for killing. “The tracks are significant because the size of the young indicates they would have been at least a few months old,” says Clark.

All the track marks point in the same direction, much like ducklings following their mother, which suggests that the tracks were created by a single group of animals all at once. Clark theorizes that the beasts were headed to a nearby water’s edge for a drink or on an instructive hunting expedition. “The similarities between birds and dinosaurs have gotten a lot of attention recently,” he says. “While the reptiles would have had an even smaller brain capacity, there’s no reason they shouldn’t have been capable of similar social strategies.”

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