Dinosaur Footprints From 183 Million Years Ago Discovered in What Was Once a 'Land of Fire'

Researchers have discovered the footprints of dinosaurs and other animals, which survived in a "land of fire" around 183 million years ago.

The 25 footprints and trackways are preserved in a layer of sandstone sandwiched between thick ancient lava flows in what is now a farm in central South Africa, according to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

"We have five trackways in total, made by three different trackmakers," Emese Bordy, an author of the study and associate professor of geological sciences at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, told Newsweek. "At least three different animals made the tracks—the similar tracks could have been made by the same trackmaker; there is no way to tell this."

"We interpret the two long trackways to have been made by dinosaurs, both meat-eating ones which walked on two legs, as well as plant-eating ones which walked on four legs. Less well-preserved trackways are more difficult to interpret. But those we studied appear to have been potentially made by synapsids, a group of reptiles that are considered to be the ancestors of mammals," she said.

According to the authors, the trackways—alongside existing scientific evidence—provide a rare insight into life in a hostile environment during the Early Jurassic Period (around 201 to 174 million years ago), a time considered the dawn of dinosaur age.

At the time when the footprints are dated to, the surrounding region was dominated by intense volcanic activity, which coincided with a major mass extinction event that devastated life on Earth—particularly in the oceans.

"This mass extinction event was caused mostly, but probably not only, by the volcanic degassing of the ancient lava flows that poured onto the land surface here in South Africa," Bordy said. "The enormous amount of molten lava, as it was flowing across the landscape not only turned this environment into a 'land of fire' but also changed the chemistry of the atmosphere and oceans in the Early Jurassic."

But life for the animals that lived in this time wasn't always hellish. During quieter periods between the volcanic eruptions, the environment and life intermittently recovered. We know this today from the trackways and other forms of evidence.

land of fire, dinosaur footprints
Artist's illustration of the site where the animal footprints were found 183 million years ago. Bordy et al, 2020

"For short time periods, the streams were flowing again, the sun was shining, the plants were growing and the animals, among them dinosaurs, were grazing and hunting," Bordy said. "This is attested by the vertebrate footprints of both meat- and plant-eating dinosaurs, plant remains, sediment deposits of streams and lakes, to name just a few. In a way, this is a story more about hope and less about devastation!"

The evidence uncovered in the study suggests that the dinosaurs and other animals survived in the main Karoo Basin—a vast geological region of southern Africa—even during the onset of significant volcanic activity.

However, these animals would be among the last vertebrates to inhabit the region as their rapidly dwindling habitat turned into a "land of fire" that increasingly became covered in lava, over the course of what the researchers describe as one of the "most dramatic geological episodes in southern Africa."