As storms rage along England’s southern coast, great swathes of the region’s sandstone cliffs crumble into the ocean. But when the dust settles, something incredible is revealed. Laid bare, you see, are the footprints of fearsome creatures that walked the Earth in prehistoric times.
The first known dinosaurs emerged some 230 million years ago, with the small, meat-eating bipeds having roamed our planet in the Late Triassic era. And over the centuries that followed, a dizzying array of species would appear – from herbivorous giants that snacked on prehistoric fauna to iconic beasts such as Tyrannosaurus rex – with many continuing to capture the imagination today.
Amazingly, dinosaurs of one species or another existed for about 165 million years, meaning they remain one of the most dominant forms of life to have existed on Earth. And among their kind were some of the biggest creatures to ever walk the planet. The humongous herbivore Argentinosaurus, for example, reached a staggering 115 feet in length.
Then, about 65 million years ago – and for reasons we still do not fully understand – the dinosaurs disappeared from Earth. Most likely the result of some great cosmic event or an environmental crisis, this mass extinction saw some 75 percent of life wiped from our planet for good.
But although millennia have passed since dinosaurs walked the Earth, these strange creatures continue to hold a sway over mankind. In fact, they take starring roles in everything from movie franchises to museum exhibits around the world.
Perhaps some of this fascination comes from the fact that scientists still know so little about these prehistoric beasts. More and more is being unearthed about the dinosaurs every year, however. And both amateur sleuths and professional paleontologists are still discovering their fossilized remains.
Yet while dinosaur fossils have now been discovered in every corner of the globe, the creatures were first studied and identified in Britain. In fact, even the word “Dinosauria” – which translates from Greek as “terrible reptile” – was first created in England in the 1840s by the anatomist Richard Owen.
And since Owen first came up with that moniker, hundreds of dinosaur fossils have been discovered in Britain. Among them are multiple examples of Megalosaurus – the first of these creatures to gain a scientific name. These large carnivores were originally uncovered in the 17th century, although it would be almost 150 years before scientists realized their true nature.
Meanwhile, at around the same time that the dinosaurs were making their debut on the scientific scene, areas such as the Jurassic Coast in southern England were becoming famous for their plethora of fossils. And in 1811 an amateur paleontologist named Mary Anning discovered the first ichthyosaur specimen to ultimately be studied by experts in the cliffs near Lyme Regis.
That was far from Anning’s only find, either. Over the course of her career, she also managed to unearth two whole plesiosaurs, a pterosaur and notable marine fossils. And today, the Jurassic Coast is recognized as one of the most geologically significant locations in the entire world.
In fact, it’s thought that Britain was once home to in excess of 100 separate types of dinosaur. And even though some of the more famous species are not known to have made appearances on the British Isles, the region nonetheless has a fascinating paleontological history all of its own.
Back when the dinosaurs walked the Earth, Britain was a very different place. In fact, during the Jurassic period, Scotland was still connected to North America by land. But after the Atlantic Ocean formed, much of Britain ended up below sea level. And when the landscape eventually re-emerged, the giants that had once inhabited it were long extinct.
Then, millions of years later, the town of Hastings was founded, around 150 miles or so from where Anning and her contemporaries would make their startling discoveries. And while the area around Hastings is perhaps not as famous as the Jurassic Coast, its sandstone cliffs have also revealed prehistoric fossils.
Apparently, the region in which Hastings lies was once a vast body of water where both land- and marine-dwelling creatures thrived. Over the years, too, incidents such as rock falls have revealed startling glimpses into what life was like on England’s southern coast many millennia ago.
Then, at the beginning of 2014, a series of storms battered Hastings and the surrounding coast. And in the face of such extreme weather, the region’s fragile cliffs began to collapse. But, amazingly, the destruction revealed some interesting treasures: prehistoric relics that had been preserved in stone for millions of years.
For four successive winters, storms continued to rage along England’s southern coast, with the cliffs around Hastings crumbling a little more each year as a result. Meanwhile, a group from the University of Cambridge began to study the fascinating geological anomalies that had been hiding within the rock.
From 2014 to 2018, that team of researchers studied the ever-changing landscape at the Ashdown Formation – a stretch of rock that forms part of the famous Hastings Beds. And in November 2018 they published their findings in the scientific journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.
Apparently, the researchers had discovered an astonishing array of dinosaur footprints preserved within the rock. In fact, over the course of four years, in excess of 85 different prints were found; they had been made, it’s thought, by no fewer than seven distinct species.
According to experts, the footprints – a type of relic known as trace fossils – originate from the Lower Cretaceous period. Beginning some 145 million years ago, this epoch saw many new types of dinosaur emerge. Then after 45 million years, the era ended, and the Late Cretaceous began, with this period ultimately being the last one in which dinosaurs are said to have existed.
In fact, experts believe that the footprints found in Hastings represent one of the most significant collections of Cretaceous trace fossils ever discovered in the U.K. And it seems that this part of the world was once home to an impressively diverse range of dinosaur species. There is certainly quite a difference between the size of the prints: the smallest is less than one inch in length, while the biggest measures more than 23 inches across.
Among the creatures whose footprints have been discovered near Hastings is the ankylosaur – a type of Cretaceous-era dinosaur. First identified in 1908, these armored beasts are thought to have used their formidable tail clubs to ward off predators or to battle other members of the same species.
But despite their fearsome appearances, the ankylosaurs were herbivores. And, interestingly, they weren’t the only plant-eaters to leave trace fossils behind in the Hastings cliffs. Apparently, researchers also discovered the prints of a creature thought to belong to the iguanodontian family.
First emerging in the Middle Jurassic period, the iguanodonts include some of the most famous dinosaurs to ever walk the Earth – creatures such as the Iguanodon and the duck-billed hadrosaurs. And these herbivorous creatures were apparently plentiful, as they thrived in many locations around the world during the Cretaceous era.
Elsewhere, footprints belonging to a species of stegosaur – although experts are not exactly sure which – were discovered. The stegosaur was identified in 1877, and fossil examples of this genus played an integral role in the Bone Wars – an intense conflict between fossil hunters that plagued paleontology in the late 19th century.
Initially believed to be marine animals, today stegosaurs are known as large, herbivorous creatures that could reach almost 30 feet in length. And with their distinctive rows of bony plates, they have become one of the most easily identified of the dinosaurs; they even appear frequently in movies and television.
Additionally, experts believe that some prints could have been left by an unknown member of the sauropod family. These were immense creatures with lengthy necks and tails and huge, column-like legs. Famously, this group contains some of history’s most well-known plant-eaters, such as the Brontosaurus and Diplodocus.
However, it appears as though the area around Hastings wasn’t exclusively a habitat for herbivores. You see, researchers believe that they have also discovered the prints of theropods preserved within the rock. Theropods were meat-eating, bipedal dinosaurs, with the group having included creatures such as the fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex.
And despite being millions of years old, the trace fossils have revealed an incredible amount of information to paleontologists. “As well as the large abundance and diversity of these prints, we also see incredible detail,” the University of Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences’ Anthony Shillito explained in 2018.
A PhD student, Shillito was the lead author on the paper that covered the group’s findings in Hastings. And according to him, the amount of detail in the prints was startling. “You can clearly see the texture of the skin and scales,” he explained in a piece for the University of Cambridge website, “as well as four-toed claw marks, which are extremely rare.”
Yet while paleontologists have apparently been observing dinosaur footprints along the Sussex coast for at least 160 years, none of the previous discoveries seem to have come close to this one in terms of diversity and detail. What’s more, the prints seem to be the first major find in the region in 25 years.
So could this latest breakthrough be a return to the glory days of 1825, when the first Iguanodon was uncovered? That could very well be the case. With the discovery of the trace fossils – which were previously not thought to be common in the region – paleontologists have certainly opened a window onto the dinosaur community that once existed in this part of the world.
Experts believe that the part of the Ashdown Formation where the footprints were discovered was once a dinosaur watering hole. A number of additional fossils have been found in the region, too; these belonged to invertebrates and plants that once thrived there.
Meanwhile, according to Dr. Neil Davies, who co-authored the paper with Shillito, a combination of factors helped to create the fascinating find. “To preserve footprints, you need the right type of environment,” he explained on the University of Cambridge website. “The ground needs to be ‘sticky’ enough so that the footprint leaves a mark, but not so wet that it gets washed away. You need that balance in order to capture and preserve them.”
Moreover, discoveries such as the Hastings prints help to build up a clearer picture of dinosaur behavior in a field where complete fossils are rare. “Usually you only get small pieces [of fossils], which don’t tell you a lot about how that dinosaur may have lived,” Shillito explained. “A collection of footprints like this helps you fill in some of the gaps. [It also helps you] infer things about which dinosaurs were living in the same place at the same time.”
“You can get some idea about which dinosaurs made them from the shape of the footprints. [And] comparing them with what we know about dinosaur feet from other fossils lets you identify the important similarities,” Shillito continued. “When you also look at footprints from other locations, you can start to piece together which species were the key players.”
Just studying footprints that were created millions of years ago isn’t quite enough for Shillito, however; he is also looking at how creatures such as the ones that made the prints may have affected their environment. For example, could large dinosaurs have had an impact on how early rivers were formed?
Today, researchers believe that bulky creatures such as cows and hippos can cause channels to form in rivers – thus shifting the water in a different direction. And according to Shillito, it’s possible that dinosaurs could have had a similar effect on the Cretaceous period’s landscape.
“Given the sheer size of many dinosaurs, it’s highly likely that they affected rivers in a similar way [to modern-day creatures]. But it’s difficult to find a ‘smoking gun,’ since most footprints would have just washed away,” Shillito explained. “However, we do see smaller-scale evidence of their impact; in some of the deeper footprints, you can see thickets of plants that were growing.”
“We also found evidence of footprints along the banks of river channels,” Shillito continued. “So, it’s possible that dinosaurs played a role in creating those channels.” In fact, experts believe that there could be many more trace fossils waiting to be discovered in the region. Unfortunately, though, new developments may mean that they ultimately never see the light of day.
Although coastal erosion is positive for paleontologists, it presents more of a challenge to those who live in the area. And, currently, work is being carried out to improve the sea defenses around Hastings and prevent further losses to cliff faces. But while locals may be pleased about these changes, they could nevertheless halt the region’s dinosaur discoveries. Indeed, they could even seal things such as these footprints in the ground for good.