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South America’s First Dinosaur Tracks

Tracks now readily recognizable as belonging to dinosaurs were once attributed to prodigious birds and other creatures

One of the many dinosaur tracks figured in Edward Hitchcock's Ichnology of New England.

Way back in 1839, no one had any idea what dinosaur tracks looked like. In fact, the word “dinosaur” did not even exist yet—the term would be coined by the British anatomist Richard Owen in 1842. Little wonder, then, that tracks now readily recognizable as belonging to dinosaurs were once attributed to prodigious birds and other creatures.

Edward Hitchcock, a New England geologist and theologian, established the study of dinosaur tracks in North America thanks to the abundance of trace fossils found in the Connecticut Valley. People had known about these tracks for a long time—the Lenape Native American tribe even had legends about them—but it wasn’t until the mid-1830s that they came under the scrutiny of naturalists who wanted to know how they were made and what sort of animals they represented. But Hitchcock and other American naturalists were not the only ones interested in these fossil impressions.

In 1839, while Hitchcock was pondering his tracks from New England, the German geologist Carl Degenhardt discovered what appeared to be large bird footprints left in the red sandstone of a Colombian mountain range. No illustration of the tracks was ever published, but given that dinosaur tracks were often confused with the footprints of large birds, it seems probable that Degenhardt truly did find imprints left by dinosaurs. According to paleontologist and historian Eric Buffetaut, this was probably the first recorded dinosaur tracks found in South America.

Despite the importance of Degenhardt’s discovery, though, news of his find quickly sank from view. The reasons why, Buffetaut hypothesized, had to do with how the discovery was communicated. A description of the discovery had been included in a report of a geographical, rather than a geological, journal, and a later newspaper blurb about the find mistakenly placed the tracks in Mexico instead of Colombia. These quirks of publication kept Degenhardt’s discovery obscure—it took over a century and a half for news of the tracks he found to be rediscovered.

References:

Buffetaut, E. 2000. A forgotten episode in the history of dinosaur ichnology: Carl Degenhardt’s report on the first discovery of fossil footprints in South America (Colombia 1839). Bulletin de la Societe Geologique de France, 171 (1): 137-140

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About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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