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Have We Found “Missing” Footprint?

8 June 2014

Labyrinthodon footprints

“There is no branch of detective science which is so important and so much neglected, as the art of tracing footsteps” — Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet

There is a curious note in Richard Owen’s official guide to the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, his 1854 book, Geology and Inhabitants of the Ancient World  (note 1). When writing about Labyrinthodon, one of the creatures he had researched in great detail, Owen mentions a series of footprints installed with the animal models in the Crystal Palace Park. These came from a related fossil animal known as Chirotherium, sometimes spelled Cheirotherium (note 2). The drawing at the top of this page shows a slab of fossil footprints similar to those supposedly installed in the display.

While Megalosaurus and Iguanodon are impossible to miss, the footprints mentioned by Owen are nowhere to be seen. But perhaps we’ve found a clue.

Who cares about footprints?

In the mid-19th century, the study of footprints was an exciting new frontier of palaeontology. Discoveries had recently come to light from Dumfriesshire, Scotland (note 3); Hildburghausen, Germany (note 4); Cheshire and Merseyside (UK) (note 5) and the Connecticut Valley, US (note 6). In some cases, footprints provided the only clues for the existence of a species (note 7).

In palaeontology circles today, fossil footprints remain essential tools for unlocking secrets about the way animals moved, behaved, and interacted.  A lot can be inferred from footprints.

The Victorian fascination with fossil footprints was reflected in the large number of museum displays in which they featured. For instance, footprint slabs were on display at the British Museum, now the Natural History Museum (note 8). Casts of footprint slabs also could be purchase from commercial suppliers, such as through Henry Ward’s 1866 Catalogue of Casts of Fossils (note 9).

Image from Ward’s (1866) Catalogue of Casts of Fossils, showing a cast of what is labelled as “Cheirotherium”, on sale for $10.

It’s not surprising that Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins chose to include footprints as part of his sculptures in Crystal Palace Park. Probably with Richard Owen’s consent (note 10), footprints accompanied the models for their presumed animal creators or near relatives, the Labyrinthodons. Owen had described these from fragmentary material found in Warwickshire (note 11), suggesting they were essentially giant amphibians.

I’ve seen a photograph, from approximately 2002, of a Chirotherium footprint set in water next to one of the Labyrinthodon models. But it was loose, set there for the photograph. I suspect it had been lifted up from elsewhere on Primary Island and later set into the spot where it’s now been seen. I don’t know if other footprints await discovery.

The ‘Labyrinthodons’ are the three models in the foreground, representing two species. The one where the footprint has been located is on the left. Photographed in 2014.

Where are the footprints now?

I have spotted what we think may be the only surviving footprint, or pair of footprints in a photograph shown to me by Professor Joe Cain (note 12). That photograph was taken in 2013. Strangely, I have seen this footprint in only one photograph. Cross-checking this observation against many other images of virtually identical views, I can find nothing. It’s just not there!

Labyrinthodon with footprint, or pair of footprints, highlighted. Photographed in 2013.

Compare the images above and below. These were taken five years apart.

Labyrinthodon without footprint, or footprints. Photographed in 2008.

Last week, I went to check myself. I took my best camera and a pair of binoculars because I could not get onto the islands without special permission from park officials. The spot was covered over with growing plants. I cannot express how frustrating that was. So very close…

Look for yourself

Specialists like me who study footprints (we’re known as ‘ichnologists’) know footprints can be highly elusive to the human eye. The slightest change in lighting, for instance, can unveil or shroud these prehistoric enigmas. This is because they are often of low relief and, paradoxically, if you’re staring straight down at one…you could likely miss it. The secret to spotting footprints is to look for them when the sun is at a much lower angle, for instance, at daybreak or dusk. Then, get down as low as possible, and look across the surface (bedding plane) to spot the ‘newly’ emerging footprints.

We do know that our images were taken five years apart. It’s possible that the footprint has been filled with loose sediment or dirt. So we need to get out there with a brush, under the careful eye of park rangers of course.

So, if you have had the fortune to visit the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, take a close look at your photographs. If you can spot anything that looks like a footprint, tweet the Friends at @cpdinosaurs or add a post on the Friends’ Facebook page. And when you next visit the park, don’t just visit the dinosaurs. Give the little ol’ Labyrinthodons some of your time.

References and Notes

1 Owen, R, and Hawkins, B. W. (1854).  Geology and Inhabitants of the Ancient World. Crystal Palace Library. 39 p.

2 From Kaup, J. J. (1835). Das Tierreich 1. Johann Philipp Diehl, Darmstadt: 116 p.

3 Duncan, H (1831) An Account of the Tracks and Footprints of Animals Found Impressed on Sandstone in the Quarry of Corncockle Muir in Dumfriesshire. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh,11:194-209.

4 Kaup, J. J. (1835). Mitteilung über Tierfährten von Hildburghausen. Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie, Geologie und Paläontologie, 1835:327–328.

5 Cunningham, J. (1838) An Account of the Footsteps of the Chirotherium and Other Unknown Animals Lately Discovered in the Quarries of Storeton Hill, in the Peninsular of Wirrall between the Mersey and the Dee. Proceedings of the Geological Society of London, 3: 12-14.

6 Hitchcock, E. (1836) Ornithichnology-Description of the Footmarks of Birds, (Ornithichnites) On New Red Sandstone in Massachusetts. American Journal of Science, Series 1. 29:307-340.

7 For an example of how footprint evidence may be the only proof of an animal’s existence, in the geological record, see Tresise, G. R. (1989) The Invisible Dinosaur. National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside. Eaton Press, Wallasey, Merseyside. 32 p.

8 Mantell, G. A. (1851) Petrifactions and Their Teachings; or, a Handbook to the Gallery of Organic Remains of the British Museum. Henry G Bohn, London.

9 Ward, H. A. (1866). Catalogue of Casts of Fossils: From the Principal Museums of Europe and America, with Short Descriptions and Illustrations. Benton & Andrews, printers.

10 Hawkins, B. W. (1854). On Visual Education As Applied to Geology. Journal of the Society of Arts,  2: 444-449.

11 Although Cheirotherium is the correct spelling in Greek for hand beast, Chirotherium (the incorrect spelling) was used first and therefore, under the provisions of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, is the valid name, used now. It is now thought that this type of footprint was made by animals more closely related to crocodiles, than to amphibians (see Tresise 1989, above for more details).

12 There is a short note in McCarthy and Gilbert (1994) that one of these footprints still survives. McCarthy, S. and Gilbert, M. (1994) The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs: The Story of the World’s First Prehistoric Sculptures. Crystal Palace Foundation.

Author: Dr Simon Jackson (@DrSimonJackson) is a scientist and Friend of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs.

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