Press Release: August 9, 2001 For Immediate Release

Making Tracks to the Black Hills

Fossil Trackways Shed New Light on Early Birds

The discovery of America’s oldest known fossil bird trackways near Hermosa, South Dakota has presented new evidence regarding the distribution of birds throughout the world. The 125 million year old trackways were recently announced at a gathering of paleontologists in Canada, concurrent with the publication of the find in a scientific paper included in Mesozoic Vertebrate Life: New Research Inspired by the Paleontology of Philip J. Currie, co-edited by Tanke and Carpenter, Indiana University Press.

The beautifully preserved footprints were discovered in June, 1998, by Leon Theisen and Paul Janke, both of Hill City. These trackways were made by shorebirds, similar to modern killdeer or sandpipers. This discovery reveals that ornithurine birds were present in North America approximately 10 million years earlier than was previously known. The record was formerly held by 115 million year old bird tracks in British Columbia, described by Philip J. Currie in 1981.

Dinosaur trackways from the Hermosa site were first reported in Journal of Paleontology in 1939. Researchers and enthusiasts have occasionally visited the site since that time. Soon after Theisen and Janke began fieldwork, they contacted renowned fossil track expert Martin Lockley at the University of Colorado, who led the scientific investigation and became the primary author of the paper. Additional trackways described by the team include those of large ornithopod dinosaurs, probably Iguanodon. These are the oldest examples in America of quadrupedal locomotion in this typically bipedal dinosaur. There are also at least three different types of theropod (carnivorous dinosaur) represented and other tracks that were possibly made by a small hypsilophodontid.

Landowner Dave Geary said, " I had looked at the footprints many times, but all the new information is sure interesting. We’re here such a short time and to think that so much went on here so long ago". Paul Janke, a geologist and publisher, believes the bird lineage originated in Asia. "An amazing diversity of bird fossils dating to this timeframe has been discovered in China in recent years. It wouldn’t be surprising if some of them evolved into shorebirds and migrated to North America by the early Cretaceous."

Leon Theisen, a professional paleontologist directing the excavations, anticipates additional new and exciting discoveries as research continues. "The feeling we get working at a site like this is very different from the usual process of excavating the bones of a great fallen beast from his "final" resting place," Theisen said. "This isn’t where they died, it’s where they lived."


First Reports of Bird and Ornithopod Tracks from the Lakota Formation (Early Cretaceous), Black Hills, South Dakota, Martin G. Lockley, Paul R. Janke and Leon Theisen; published in the book Mesozoic Vertebrate Life: New Research Inspired by the Paleontology of Philip J. Currie, co-edited by Tanke and Carpenter, Indiana University Press, 2001.

Copyright 2001 by Pan Terra Inc., PO Box 556, Hill City, SD, USA 57745.

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