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Dinosaur nest found in South Africa, Daderot via Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0
Dinosaur nest found in South Africa, Daderot via Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0

6 Types of Fascinating Trace Fossils You Can Visit

Dinosaur nest found in South Africa, Daderot via Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0
Dinosaur nest found in South Africa, Daderot via Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0

Trace fossils (otherwise known as ichnofossils) are an echo of ancient life, providing evidence of animal activity in the past. Unlike normal fossils, which reveal the body of an animal in death, trace fossils show us how an animal behaved in life. Trace fossils can take many forms, including fossilized animal burrows, footprints, tracks, trails, nests, eggs and, of course, fossilized poop. Visiting them can offer a chance to learn more about the insights scientists have made from these amazing finds.

1. WHERE WE WALKED

Cast of the Laetoli footprints at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Image via Tim Evanson, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 2.0

Footprints are perhaps the most evocative of trace fossils, allowing us to literally walk in our ancestors’ shoes. Some are transitory, like the ones found in 2013 in Norfolk, England, where a team of researchers from the British Museum noticed that heavy seas had washed away layers of silt, leaving the uncovered estuary mud pock-marked with ancient footprints. Unfortunately, the 800,000-year-old prints eroded in a matter of weeks, but their existence was well-documented in digital images and will continue to be studied. Other footprints have lasted far longer: One pair recently discovered in British Columbia may be 13,200 years old, which would make them the oldest found in North America.

Where to see them: The most famous site containing footprint trace fossils is the Laetoli trackway in Tanzania. Footprints of early hominins from 3.6 million years ago were uncovered here, proving that our early ancestors walked upright. Visitors hoping to see the actual trackway will be disappointed, since it’s not open to visitors, but a cast of the footprints can be seen at the nearby Olduvai Gorge Visitor Centre.

2. WHERE ANIMALS MOVED

Climactichnites and ripple marks from Wisconsin, at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo. Image via Momotarou2012, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 

Some of the most intriguing trace fossils are trackways left preserved in sediment. Because the tracks are not generally found alongside the fossil of an actual animal, it can be very difficult for scientists to uncover the type of creature that made the trackway. In some cases, such as soft-bodied worms—which would not leave bodily evidence in the fossil record since they have no skeleton—trace fossils of their castings are the only evidence for their existence. Because fossilized trackways are created where the creature lived and moved, they can often help researchers to discover more about an animal's habitat and behavior.

Where to see them: A great example of a fossilized trackway can be found in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington D. C. Here, visitors can see an eight-foot tall cast of trackways made by Climactichnites, a two-foot long slug-like creature.

3. PLACES ANIMALS CALLED HOME

Asteriacites from the Devonian of northeastern Ohio. Image via Mark A. Wilson, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Asteriacites, the fossilized remains of starfish or ophiuroid burrows, are some of the most beautiful trace fossils. Most common in Jurassic rock formations, the indentations are created by the starfish digging their arms into the soft sediment. They are especially useful for scientists, since these trace fossils can leave an impression of the animal’s actual body. Other common resting traces are left by trilobites.

Burrow trace fossils, on the other hand, are most frequently associated with small burrowing sea creatures or bivalves, such as clams.

Where to see them:  An Asteriacite fossil can be seen at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University in Connecticut, where they have a world-renowned Invertebrate Zoology department.

4. WHERE ANIMALS ATE

Bitemarks in the fossil record can point to beavers building their dams, insects nibbling a leaf, or—in some rather more gruesome cases—dinosaurs gnawing their fellow dinosaurs. Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to identify which animal was eating the victim by toothmarks alone, but occasionally identification is made possible when part of a tooth has been left embedded in the bone. For example, a fossilized pterosaur bone was found in Alberta, Canada, with gnaw marks on it and a partial tooth embedded in it; analysis later indicated it was from the Saurornitholestes, a Late Cretaceous dinosaur similar to the more famous (thanks to Jurrasic Park) Velociraptor.

Where to see them: At the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, visitors can see some amazingly well-preserved Ice Age fossils, with some revealing gnaw marks left by insects and rodents.

5. WHERE ANIMALS WERE BORN

Protoceratops nest discovered in Mongolia. Image via Internet Archive, Wikimedia // No known copyright restrictions

There is some dispute over whether eggs can be classified as trace fossils or body fossils. Certainly where there is embryonic matter preserved inside the egg, they are seen as body fossils. However, fossils of nests can reveal much about the behavior of a dinosaur or other animal, by revealing where they chose to nest. Dinosaur nests have only ever been found on the ground, suggesting that they nested like modern reptiles and birds such as penguins.

Where to see them: The Natural History Museum in London has the nest of a Protoceratops, a small horned dinosaur, on display. The nest and a clutch of eggs were uncovered in the Gobi desert in Mongolia and are over 80 million years old.

6. POOP

A coprolite named "Precious," discovered in South Carolina and on display at the Poozeum. Image via Poozeum, via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

An animal’s fossilized poop (or coprolite) can reveal a lot about their diet, including whether they were an herbivore or a carnivore. For example, Tyrannosaurus rex coprolites indicate that they did not pick at their food, but devoured everything, bones and all. Geologist William Buckland was the first to identify the strange “fossil fir cones” as feces, and coined the name coprolites in 1829. In 2014 a private collector paid $10,370 for a 40-inch long coprolite. Unfortunately, many paleontologists think it may have been wrongly identified, and is merely a blobby mass of the mineral siderite.

Where to see them: The world’s largest collection of coprolites can be seen at the South Florida Museum in Bradenton. Dubbed the “poozeum,” the amazing collection boasts 1277 coprolites, found across eight countries and 15 states.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
3500-Year-Old Mummy Discovered in Forgotten Egyptian Tomb

As the site of the ancient city of Thebes, the modern-day Egyptian city of Luxor is filled with archaeological treasures. But until recently, two forgotten tombs—both located in the necropolis of Dra' Abu el-Naga, an important non-royal cemetery—hadn’t been fully explored. Now, National Geographic reports that experts have finally excavated these burial sites and discovered a 3500-year-old mummy, along with ornate funerary goods and colorful murals.

While excavating one of the two tombs, known as Kampp 150, experts found linen-wrapped remains that Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities believes belong to either "a person named Djehuty Mes, whose name was engraved on one of the walls ... [or] the scribe Maati, as his name and the name of his wife Mehi were inscribed on 50 funerary cones found in the tomb's rectangular chamber."

In addition to the mummy, archaeologists discovered wooden statues, masks, earthen pots, a cache of some 450 statuettes, and around 100 funerary cones—conical mud objects, which were often positioned outside a tomb's center, and could have served as identifying markers or as offerings—inside Kampp 150.

The Associated Press reported that the second tomb, known as Kampp 161, is thought to be approximately 3400 years old—about 100 years newer than its neighboring chamber—as its design is characteristic of other such structures dating back to the reigns of Amenhotep II and Thutmose IV.

Inside Kampp 161, archaeologists discovered wooden funerary masks, a decorated coffin, furniture shards, and the mural of a festival or party depicting the tomb's unknown resident and his wife receiving ceremonial offerings.

German scholar Friederike Kampp-Seyfried surveyed and numbered both tombs in the 1990s, which is how they got their names, but she did not fully excavate nor enter either one.

Officials celebrated the rediscovery of the tombs on Saturday, December 9, when they publicly announced the archaeological finds. They hope that discoveries like these will entice foreign travelers to visit Egypt, as political unrest has harmed the country's tourism industry in recent years.

“It’s truly an exceptional day,” Khaled al-Anani, Egypt's antiquities minister, said in a statement. “The 18th dynasty private tombs were already known. But it’s the first time" anyone's ever entered them.

Check out some pictures of the newly revealed relics below.

Mustafa al-Waziri, director general of Luxor's Antiquities, points at an ancient Egyptian mural found at the newly discovered 'Kampp 161' tomb at Draa Abul Naga necropolis.
Mustafa al-Waziri, director general of Luxor's Antiquities, points at an ancient Egyptian mural found at the newly discovered 'Kampp 161' tomb at Draa Abul Naga necropolis on the west Nile bank of the southern Egyptian city of Luxor, about 400 miles south of the capital Cairo, on December 9, 2017.
STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

An Egyptian archaeological technician restores artifacts found at the newly discovered 'Kampp 161' tomb at Draa Abul Naga necropolis in Luxor, Egypt.
An Egyptian archaeological technician restores artifacts found at the newly discovered 'Kampp 161' tomb at Draa Abul Naga necropolis on the west Nile bank of the southern Egyptian city of Luxor, about 400 miles south of the capital Cairo, on December 9, 2017.
STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

An Egyptian laborer stands next to an ancient Egyptian mural found at the newly discovered 'Kampp 161' tomb at Draa Abul Naga necropolis in Luxor, Egypt.
STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

Ancient Egyptian wooden funerary masks and small statuettes found in and retrieved from the newly discovered 'Kampp 150' tomb at Draa Abul Naga necropolis in Luxor, Egypt.
A picture taken on December 9, 2017 shows ancient Egyptian wooden funerary masks and small statuettes found in and retrieved from the newly discovered 'Kampp 150' tomb at Draa Abul Naga necropolis on the west Nile bank of the southern Egyptian city of Luxor, about 400 miles south of the capital Cairo.
STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

[h/t National Geographic]

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Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on Alor Island, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
These 12,000-Year-Old Fish Hooks Are the Oldest to Ever Be Discovered in a Grave
Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on Alor Island, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.
Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on Alor Island, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.

Prehistoric people who lived on Indonesia’s rugged and remote Alor Island held fishing in such high importance that even the dead were supplied with equipment for snagging a fresh catch. While digging at an archaeological site on the island’s south coast in 2014, scientists found a group of ancient fish hooks, which were buried with an adult human around 12,000 years ago. They’re the oldest fishhooks to ever be discovered in a grave, according to a new report published in the journal Antiquity.

Archaeologists from Australian National University found the partial skeleton while excavating an early rock shelter on Alor’s west coast. The bones—which appeared to belong to a female—were interred with five circular one-piece fish hooks made from sea snail shell. Also found was a perforated bivalve shell, buried beneath the skeleton’s chin. It’s unclear what purpose this artifact served, but experts did note that it had been smoothed and polished, and appeared to have once been dyed red.

Ancient fish hooks discovered in Indonesia by archaeologists from Australian National University
Rotating fish hooks found with the burial

Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on AlorIsland, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys, and Rachel Wood.

Prehistoric fish hooks found in Indonesia by archaeologists from Australian National University.
Circular rotating fish hooks found with the burial

Photograph by Sofía Samper Carro. "Fishing in life and death: Pleistocene fish-hooks from a burial context on AlorIsland, Indonesia," Antiquity, Sue O’Connor, Mahirta, Sofía C. Samper Carro, Stuart Hawkin, Shimona Kealy, Julien Louys and Rachel Wood.

Researchers used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of charcoal samples found near the burial ground. From this, they determined that the fish hooks and human remains were buried during the Pleistocene Epoch.

Alor Island, the largest island in the volcanic Alor Archipelago, is rocky and lacks a variety of plant life and protein sources. For these reasons, fish was likely an important staple food for ancient residents, and the act of fishing may have also been considered cosmologically important, archaeologists say.

The burial on Alor Island "represents the earliest-known example of a culture for whom fishing was clearly an important activity among both the living and the dead,” the study's authors wrote. Additionally, if the skeleton indeed belonged to a woman (the bones themselves haven't yet been conclusively identified), the hooks might suggest that women in ancient Alor were tasked with hook-and-line fishing, just like those in ancient Australia.

Archaeologists have identified prehistoric fishing hooks at sites around the world. They range from 23,000-year-old hooks, discovered on Japan’s Okinawa Island (the world’s oldest-known fishing implements), to slate hooks from Siberia’s late Mesolithic period (the second-oldest hooks ever found in a gravesite).

The fishing hooks discovered on Alor are circular instead of J-shaped, and resemble other ancient hooks that were once used in countries like Japan, Australia, Mexico, and Chile. Some experts have suggested that these similarities in technology were the result of migration, cultural contact, or even from fish hooks left in migrating tuna. The researchers at Australian National University argue against this theory, hypothesizing that the similarly shaped hooks are instead evidence of “convergent cultural evolution in technology” around the globe.

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