Millions of years ago, one of the largest animals to ever exist strutted around what is now the Gobi desert. And it left behind some massive footprints.
The Gobi desert has long been a popular place for paleontologists to search for dinosaur bones. Since the 1920s, scientists have trekked to the central Asian desert to scrounge up fossilized skeletons. Recently, a joint group of researchers from Japan’s Okayama University of Science and the Mongolian Academy of Science came across a massive footprint that may have been left behind by a long-dead titanosaur, the Agence France-Presse (AFP) reports.
"This is a very rare discovery as it's a well-preserved fossil footprint that is more than a meter long with imprints of its claws," the Okayama University of Science wrote in a statement, according to the AFP.
The enormous footprint stretches over four feet long and is nearly as large as one of the scientists who discovered it when he curls up in a ball. While the researchers have yet to find a nearby skeleton that could have been left behind by the animal who made it, the shape and size of the fossil footprint suggests that it was made by a titanosaur, Nicole Puglise reports for The Guardian.
While the name “titanosaur” may be intimidating, the massive dinosaurs were herbivores, preferring to snack on plants and leaves than munch on meat. First discovered in the 2000’s, the long-necked titanosaur stretched nearly 100 feet from tip to tail and stood almost 70 feet tall, Puglise reports.
Because of their enormous size, some of these dinosaurs walked around on large stump-like legs that looked a bit like horseshoes. They also lacked toes, which might break under their weight. The fossil footprint itself was created somewhere between 70 and 90 millions years ago during the Cretaceous period. After a giant titanosaur strolled through some wet mud, it probably filled in with sand, preserving the imprint, the AFP reports.
This isn’t the first time researchers have uncovered fossil footprints left behind by titanosaurs: similar specimens have been found in the past in Morocco and France. But this latest find not only larger than previous discoveries, but one of the tracks is the most detailed yet uncovered. As Okayama University paleontologist Shinobu Ishigaki tells The Japan Times, the footprint still retains marks left behind by nails and could help paleontologists learn more about how the massive animals walked about the world.
Ishigaki says the researchers will continue to survey the area where the footprint was discovered to see if it might be hiding other fossils. In the meantime, there is much to learn from this gargantuan footprint.