An artist's impression of a theropod dinosaur making a footprint in soft sediment (left), and Burniston Bay (right)

Burniston Bay in Yorkshire (right) is renowned for its dinosaur footprints. Palaeoart image © James McKay and photo © Graeme Churchard, licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

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Carnivorous dinosaur footprint is the largest found in Yorkshire

A fossil found in northern Britain is revealing insights into the behaviour of a 166-million-year-old dinosaur.

The footprint is the largest of its type ever found in Yorkshire and suggests large predators were walking the area as they looked for prey.

A moment in the life of a carnivorous dinosaur frozen in time for millions of years has been revealed by a fossil footprint.

Found on a beach in Burniston Bay, north of Scarborough, Yorkshire, the three-toed track is believed to have been made by a large theropod. It measures 80 centimetres long and 41 centimetres wide, making it the largest found in the area.

John Hudson, a local researcher who is the lead author of a new study describing the footprint, says, 'This important discovery adds further evidence that meat-eating giants once roamed this area during the Jurassic.'

'The type of footprint, combined with its age, suggests that it was made by a ferocious Megalosaurus-like dinosaur, with a possible hip height between 2.5 and 3 metres.'

The footprint, which was in danger of being eroded away, has now been recovered and donated to Scarborough Museum and Galleries, who hope to display it in the near future.

The description of the footprint was published in Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society.

A view of Burniston Bay, Yorkshire, with a muddy intertidal zone between the shoreline and the sea.

Wasp stings normally deliver venom, but the pseudo-stings are just sharp. Image © Graeme Churchard, licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

What was Yorkshire like in the Jurassic?

North Yorkshire is renowned for its dinosaur footprints, with thousands of preserved tracks having been found across the county over the past century. Burniston Bay is known as a particular hotspot, with footprints from a variety of dinosaurs preserved in rocks known as the Ravenscar Group.

These footprints were formed during the Middle Jurassic, which lasted from around 174 to 163.5 million years ago. At the time, northern Yorkshire was part of a coastal floodplain, whose muddy shores would have been ideal for preserving footprints.

Pollen records suggest the surrounding landscape would have been covered in large ferns, as well as conifer and Gingko trees. This vegetation would have attracted a variety of herbivorous dinosaurs, including sauropods and stegosaurs, with predators following in their wake.

From the thousands of footprints known from the Ravenscar Group around 25 different types have been identified.

Dr Mike Romano, who has studied the area's fossils for many years, says, 'Although these different types do not necessarily represent the same number of different dinosaur species, they indicate a diverse ecosystem of animals, including both carnivores and herbivores, that roamed the coastal plain millions of years ago.'

The discovery of a new carnivorous footprint is quite rare, as predators are much fewer in number than their prey. This makes the newly-described footprint only the sixth of its kind known from Burniston since the first was discovered in 1934.

The fossilised dinosaur footprint showing impressions of three toes and claws

The footprint was initially discovered by co-author Rob Taylor before Marie Woods came across it. Image © Marie Woods

Which dinosaur made the Burniston footprint?

The researchers described the footprint as being Megalosauripus, which is not a dinosaur species but rather a specific type of footprint made by theropod dinosaurs. Footprints are categorised by type as it's often impossible to be certain which dinosaur species left the track behind.

That said, based on similar footprints found elsewhere the scientists believe it would have been made by a dinosaur like Megalosaurus. This was the first dinosaur ever described by science in 1824, though its fossils have been known of since the 1600s.

As well as being an important record of ancient life in its own right, fossil footprints also give clues about the behaviour of ancient animals. Fossil tracks have recorded evidence of dinosaurs walking, running and swimming.

This Megalosauripus footprint might show a near-miss for this dinosaur, with the paper suggesting that it could represent the dinosaur slipping slightly during a walk. Other interpretations are also possible.

'Features of the footprint could suggest that this large predator was squatting down before standing up,' adds co-author Dr Dean Lomax from the University of Manchester. 'It's fun to think this dinosaur might well have been strolling along a muddy coastal plain one lazy Sunday afternoon in the Jurassic.'

Scarborough's Rotunda Museum

The Rotunda Museum was one of the first custom built museums in the UK, and it is hoped the footprint will go on display there. Image © clivewa/Shutterstock

How was the Burniston footprint recovered?

All this information could have been lost had it not been for the quick actions of the team and local fossil collectors to safely recover the footprint.

The fossil was discovered by Marie Woods in April 2021. While the footprint had been identified a few months prior, its full extent only became apparent when the local archaeologist came across it.

'I couldn't believe what I was looking at, and I had to do a double take,' said Marie. 'I have seen a few smaller prints when out with friends, but nothing like this.'

'I can no longer say that "archaeologists don't do dinosaurs!"'

After contacting local experts and Dean, the decision was made to remove the fossil to prevent further damage. Experienced fossil collectors cut the track out of the sandstone, and donated it Scarborough Museum and Galleries.

Now the fossil has been studied, plans are afoot for the footprint to go on public display. There are hopes that it will be exhibited at the Rotunda Museum in Scarborough alongside its collection of other fossil footprints.