Birdlike footprints from Triassic mystery animals precede earliest bird fossils by 60 million years A new analysis of three-toed fossil footprints that date back more than 210 million years reveals that they were created by bipedal reptiles with feet like a bird's. These ancient footprints were found in rock layers in the Dolomites mountain range in northeastern Italy, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One. The researchers used laser scans and 3D models to examine the prints, which are very well-preserved. The study's authors believe that these footprints were made by a type of reptile called dinosauromorphs, a group that includes dinosaurs and their closest relatives. These animals were likely about the size of a chicken and walked on two legs. "It is amazing to think that tiny, bird-like footprints made by animals walking around more than 210 million years ago can tell us so much about the Triassic world," said study author Professor Mike Benton from the University of Bristol's School of Earth Sciences. The footprints offer important information about the evolution of birds and their closest relatives. The earliest bird fossils are from the Jurassic period, about 150 million years old. But these footprints predate those fossils by about 60 million years. The researchers were able to determine the size and movement patterns of the animals that made the footprints. The impressions are about 2.5 centimeters long, and they show that the creature was walking on tiptoe, just like modern birds. "The discovery of 'bird-like' dinosaur footprints that are around 220 million years old suggests that the Triassic archosaurs, the ancestors of dinosaurs, were much more bird-like than previously suspected," said study co-author Dr. Marco Avanzini from Italy's Museo delle Scienze. The researchers also suggest that these dinosauromorphs lived in a desert environment, rather than a lush tropical one. This is based on the characteristics of the sediment layers surrounding the footprints. The footprints tell researchers about the earliest stages of bird evolution and how birds evolved from reptiles. Understanding the origins of birds is important for understanding the evolution of dinosaurs and reptiles as a whole. "Technological advances in the latest two decades allowed for the investigation of peculiar fossils preserving the remains of soft tissues (feathers, skin, muscles, and footpad)," said study co-author Dr. Paolo Citton from the Soprintendenza Archaeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per le province di Verona, Rovigo e Vicenza. "The current data support the idea that the acquisition of plantigrady (flat foot) and specializations in the shape of the anklebones occurred later in bird history." This means that birds and their ancestors likely did not have the same type of foot structure until later in their evolution. The findings also suggest that these birdlike dinosauromorphs were more diverse and widespread than previously thought. The footprints were found in what is now Italy, but during the Triassic period, this area was part of a supercontinent called Pangaea. The researchers believe that similar footprints could be found in other parts of the world that were also part of Pangaea, such as North America, Africa, and Australia. The footprints provide important evidence of the existence and characteristics of ancient animals that lived millions of years ago. By understanding more about these creatures and their behavior, scientists can piece together the story of Earth's ancient past. "These discoveries from the Italian Alps are just scratching the surface of what we can learn about the ancient world," Benton said. The study highlights how fossil footprints can provide valuable insights into the past, even when fossils of the animals themselves are scarce. Footprints can reveal the size, shape, and motion of ancient creatures that left them behind. As technology continues to improve, researchers will be able to extract even more information from these ancient footprints and gain a better understanding of the world that existed before our own.
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