Drought Exposes Dinosaur Tracks in Texas

The 113-million-year-old footprints were largely made by the carnivorous Acrocanthosaurus

Three-toed dinosaur tracks disappearing into some water
Drought conditions caused Dinosaur Valley State Park's Paluxy River to dry up, revealing tracks not usually visible.  Paul Baker / Friends of Dinosaur Valley State Park via Facebook

Across the world, vanishing waters from drought conditions have revealed a myriad of previously hidden objects and artifacts in the last couple of weeks alone. In Europe, dozens of Nazi warships appeared in the Danube when water levels dropped. Receding waters in China’s Yangtze River uncovered three Buddhist statues. And human bodies and sunken ships have turned up in Nevada’s Lake Mead.

Now, a severe drought in Texas has revealed 113-million-year-old dinosaur tracks in Dinosaur Valley State Park. The prints are usually covered by the Paluxy River—the last time they were visible was in the year 2000, according to BBC News

"The river dried up completely in most locations, allowing for more tracks to be uncovered here in the park," the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said in a statement, per NPR’s Wynne Davis. "Under normal river conditions, these newer tracks are under water and are commonly filled in with sediment, making them buried and not as visible.” 

A three-toed dinosaur track in dry ground
One of the revealed tracks Paul Baker / Friends of Dinosaur Valley State Park via Facebook

Most of the tracks belong to the carnivorous Acrocanthosaurus, which lived about 115 to 105 million years ago in the Early Cretaceous period. These dinosaurs walked on two legs and had three toes with claws on each foot. They weighed up to 7 tons and stood some 15 feet tall.   

The recently revealed tracks are called the "Lone Ranger trackway,” consisting of about 140 tracks from one individual, 60 of which were visible when the river water disappeared, park superintendent Jeff Davis tells BBC News. Other tracks were left by Sauroposeidon, a 60-foot-tall dinosaur weighing 44 tons.

“Those footprints—they’re spectacular because they’re deep,” Louis Jacobs, a vertebrate paleontologist at Southern Methodist University, tells the New York Times’ April Rubin. “You can see the toenails. There’s more than one kind, and there’s a lot of them.”

All the park’s dinosaur tracks are preserved in limestone, which protects them to some degree, park spokesperson Stephanie Garcia tells the Times. When covered by silt and sediment, the prints are protected, but eventually, officials expect weathering and erosion will destroy them. 

“We do anticipate and know there to be more tracks that are buried to this day,” write park officials in a Facebook comment. “So while we will lose the tracks we currently have, more will be discovered in the process!”

Dinosaur tracks are much more common than other evidence of these reptiles, including bones, and can help scientists understand these creatures’ day-to-day lives, Jerry Harris, director of paleontology at Utah Tech University, tells NPR. Tracks can reveal information about the posture and speed of the dinosaur, which would be more difficult to discern from the skeleton, he explains. 

Officials expect water will once again cover the Lone Ranger trackway, though the western United States is currently experiencing the worst drought in 1,200 years. The severe dry spell has been exacerbated by climate change

"There's some irony in the fact that dinosaurs, which were ultimately wiped out by very rapid climate change—now [the] evidence of their living animals was exposed because of human-made climate change today,” Harris tells NPR.