Four-Year-Old Lives Every Child’s Dream and Discovers a Dinosaur Footprint

Found on a beach in Wales, the fossil is 220 million years old and shows the details of the muscles and joints in the reptile’s foot

A photograph shows the fossilized footprint in a rock
The four-inch-long footprint happened to be in a rock at about the height of a four-year-old child's shoulder. Courtesy of National Museum Wales

A regular walk along the beach can turn into an exciting paleontological expedition when a sharp-eyed child is involved. At the end of January, four-year-old Lily Wilder spotted a dinosaur footprint on the beach at Bendricks Bay in Wales, Steve Inskeep reports for NPR. Now, that footprint is on its way to a museum.

The bay is well known—and protected by the Geological Society of London—for its fossilized footprints and layers of sediment deposits. The rock formation is about 220 million years old, and the first dinosaurs appeared about 230 million years ago, so the footprints at Bendricks Bay are a mix of early dinosaur and crocodilian species.

The footprint that Lily found is one of the region’s best-preserved footprints, National Museum Wales says in a statement. Luckily, it was at just the right height for an observant kid to see it.

“It was on a low rock, shoulder height for Lily, and she just spotted it and said, 'look Daddy,'” says Lily’s mother, Sally Wilder, to NBC News’ Adela Suliman. “She is really excited but doesn't quite grasp how amazing it is.”

Lily told NBC News that she loves dinosaurs (her favorite is the T-Rex) and has a collection of toys and models. Lily’s father, Richard, took photographs of the footprint and shared them with their family, and Lily’s grandmother encouraged them to connect with experts who could take a closer look at the print.

Many of the footprints immortalized in Bendricks Bay were left by ancient crocodilians, but the footprint that Lily found was made by a primitive dinosaur. The four-inch-long print is an example of a grallator, which is made by a three-toed, bipedal dinosaur, Stephanie Pappas writes for Live Science. The dinosaur that left the track was probably about 30 inches tall and eight feet long, and a carnivore that hunted small animals and insects, Chris Wood reports for BBC News.

Museum paleontologists couldn’t identify the species of dinosaur that left the track because no bones from a matching species have been found in the United Kingdom. A similar dinosaur called a Coelophysis once lived in what’s now North America, but has not been found in the U.K.

The footprint “is one of the best-preserved examples from anywhere in the U.K. and will really aid paleontologists to get a better idea about how these early dinosaurs walked,” says Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales paleontology curator Cindy Howells in the statement. Howells adds to NBC News, “It really is stunning preservation ... You can see every detail of the muscles and where the joints are in the foot.”

The footprint was removed from the bay after the National Museum Cardiff got approval from Natural Resources Wales to do so. (Removing prints from the bay is illegal.) The print will go to the museum’s collections, where it can be used for research. When it goes on display, Lily’s name will be listed beside it.