Were you able to figure out what last Monday’s fossil was? It is on display at Mid-America Museum in Hot Springs, AR. Ordinarily this would have been posted last Friday, but real life intervened. Apologies for that. Part of what happened was that when I posted the original picture last Monday, I thought I understood the background behind the fossil. It turns out that new research was published in 2013 that changed a lot of the more detailed interpretations. It didn’t change anything of importance to anyone not obsessed with details, but it sent me on a three day search for answers.
What we are looking at here is a foot print of a sauropod. Sauropods were herbivorous, long-necked dinosaurs and were the biggest animals to ever walk the earth, some of them possibly massing 50-80 tons and stretching well over 30 m (100 feet). We can’t say exactly which one made this particular footprint, but we can take a pretty good guess. If you guessed Sauroposeidon, or Astrodon, or Pleurocoelus, or Paluxysaurus, or Astrophocaudia, or Cedarosaurus, you are at least partially correct. These are all titanosaurs, a subgroup of sauropods. But which one we call it is more problematic. It is usually almost impossible to tell exactly which species made a particular track and in this case, it gets even harder because there isn’t a lot of agreement over which names are even valid.
Before we get into that morass, what is a titanosaur anyway? Titanosaurs have been in the news recently with the discovery of Dreadnoughtus. Most people are familiar with Diplodocus and Brachiosaurus, the two iconic sauropods. These two dinosaurs are the best known representatives of the two main groups of sauropods, with many species in each group. Diplodocus had shorter front legs than back legs and was relatively thin with a long, whip-like tail. It’s head was small and elongate, with simple, peg-like teeth in the front of the jaws. Brachiosaurus had longer legs in front than in back and was stockier, with a shorter, stubbier tail. It’s head was larger, with spoon-shaped teeth. Titanosaurs had front legs that were roughly the same length as the back legs, with a relatively whip-like tail like Diplodocus, although not thought to be as long. The heads looked like Brachiosaurus, but more elongate. Some had teeth like Diplodocus, some like Brachiosaurus. Basically, if you try to envision an intermediate form between Brachiosaurus and Diplodocus, you would wind up with something that looked like a titanosaur, which is rather interesting because all the studies trying to figure out their relationships place titanosaurs as much more closely related to brachiosaurs than to diplodocids. In fact, titanosaurs likely evolved from early brachiosaurids, which means that all the characteristics that make them look sort of like diplodocids are examples of convergent evolution, if the hypotheses about their relationships are correct.
What’s in a name?
Now that we know basically what we are looking at, what do we call the one which may have made this track? That is an excellent question. Two different trackways have been found in Arkansas, both in a commercial quarry in Howard County. They were fantastic finds, with thousands of tracks (5-10,000 tracks in the first trackway alone), placing them among the biggest dinosaur trackways ever found. Unfortunately, other than a few tracks that were spared, they no longer exist as they were destroyed by the quarry operations. That is a sad loss for paleontology, but in defense of the quarry owners, the tracks were found on private land and the owners had no legal requirement to tell anyone about them at all, they are running a business after all. They allowed scientists to study the trackways and in the case of the second trackway, they approached scientists at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville about the tracks on their own initiative, giving them the opportunity to study the tracks before they were destroyed. As a result, careful maps were drawn, some tracks were removed and others were saved as casts. So the trackways themselves may be gone, but the knowledge of them is still with us and in the public domain.
The tracks were initially described as being from either Astrodon or Pleurocoelus, based on the fact that fossils from these dinosaurs have been identified in Oklahoma in rock units called the Antlers Formation, which is correlated with the Trinity Formation in southwest Arkansas. However, some researchers have concluded that the material upon which these names are based can not be reliably distinguished from any other titanosaur, so the names are what is called nomen dubium, literally dubious names. Pleuocoelus became what is commonly referred to as a junk taxon, which are used as a waste basket for material not identifiable as something else. In this case, when people found bits of a titanosaur in the southern United States they couldn’t identify, they said, it’s um…uh…Pleurocoelus? Pleurocoelus! Yeah! That’s the ticket! In 2013, Michael D’Emic published his research in which he found that part of the material identified as Pleurocoelus are really from two different sauropods called Cedarosaurus and Astrocaudia, and other parts are from a Texan sauropod called Paluxysaurus, leaving other bits unidentifiable as anything other than indeterminant titanosaur. Additionally, he found that Paluxysaurus was simply a juvenile form of Sauroposeidon, a giant sauropod known from four huge cervical (neck) vertebrae found in Oklahoma. So in conclusion, what can we say about the tracks? They were made by a titanosaurid sauropod.
Life’s a Beach
The first trackway was found by Jeff Pittman in 1983 while he was working in the quarry for his master’s degree at Southern Methodist University (SMU). The second set was found in 2011 by quarry workers, who brought it to the attention of Stephen Boss, a geologist at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. The tracks in the first trackway were 12-24″ across and were interpreted as being from from adult sauropods. The other trackway was more diverse, with tridactyl (three-toed) footprints attributed to the giant carnivorous dinosaur Acrocanthosaurus, as well as tetradactyl (four-toed) tracks which may have been made by a crocodilian of some sort. The pictures below are of the first trackway, taken by David Gillette, and can be found at his site discussing Seismosaurus.
The rocks in which both of the trackways were found is in what is called the DeQueen Limestone, a subunit of the Trinity Formation. These rocks were laid down in the Early Cretaceous about 115 to 120 million years ago. At the time, the shore of the Gulf Coast went through Arkansas, so much of southwest Arkansas was underwater. The DeQueen Limestome has thin layers of sandy limestone, many of which are quite fossiliferous, with oyster shells in abundance. There are also layers of limy clay and gypsum, indicating the air was fairly hot and dry. Stephen Boss likens the environment at the time to be similar to the Persian Gulf of today. So what we have is the coast of a very warm shallow sea. The dinosaurs appear to have been using the area as part of a migratory pathway. So while no bones of these dinosaurs have been found in Arkansas yet, we know they were here, so keep an eye out when you are fossil-hunting in southwest Arkansas. Who knows, you might find something bigger than you imagine.