A diner at a restaurant in China found what appeared to be footprints in the venue’s courtyard in July last year. Analysis has now verified that what the restaurant-goer found were indeed 100-million-year-old dino tracks.
University of Queensland (UQ) palaeontologists were part of the international team that validated the fossil footprints.
“This person noticed around a dozen regularly spaced pits in the ground in the outdoor courtyard of the Garden Restaurant in Sichuan Province,” says Dr Anthony Romilio from UQ’s Dinosaur Lab.
‘Pits’ were observed at the site in the 1950s. But these were covered over by the then homeowner to make the ground more level.
When the new owners converted the home into a restaurant about three years ago, the pits were exposed again, says Associate Professor Lida Xing from the China University of Geosciences (Beijing).
“But still nothing was thought to be unusual,” Xing adds.
The depressions in the ground in the small restaurant were analysed by palaeontologists using a 3D scanner.
“It turns out they are the 50-60 cm long fossilised footprints of a long-necked sauropod dinosaur that lived in the Cretaceous period around 100 million years ago,” explains Romilio. Now that’s an early bird booking.
Sauropods were the giants of the dinosaur world and the largest ever land animals. Some sauropods are believed to have reached 40 metres in length and weighed more than 100 tonnes.
The dinosaur that left the tracks is a minnow by comparison. Scientists estimate the ‘restaurant dinosaurs’ to have been “only” around 10 metres long. They determined this by comparing the size of the footprints with the fossilised foot bones of complete sauropod fossil skeletons.
“We also know the dinosaurs were taking quite short steps for such a large animal, with a walking speed of around two kilometres per hour,” Romilio comments.
Read more: Fossil eggs of giant sauropod dinosaurs in India show the titanosaurs left their babies to fend for themselves
The tracks offer a glimpse of life during the Cretaceous in the region which is otherwise bereft of dinosaur finds.
“The region has no skeletal record of dinosaurs, so these fossilised tracks provide invaluable information about the types of dinosaurs that lived in the area,” says Xing.
“This is a really exciting find because it shows that important dinosaur tracks can be found in unexpected places.”
Xing says it is a sign that it shows how important it is to be observant.
“It’s a testament to the value of being curious about our surroundings and paying attention to the world around us,” he says. “For some lucky people discoveries can come from unlikely places – even while you’re having a bite to eat.”