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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Finally Identify a 4000-Year-Old Lost City in Iraq
Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen
Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen

In 2016, archaeologists excavating in the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan in Iraq discovered the remnants of a Bronze Age city near the modern village of Bassetki. It was large, and it appeared to have been occupied for more than 1000 years, from around 2200 to 1200 BCE. Ancient Mesopotamia, home to the earliest civilizations on Earth, had many cities. So which one was it?

The mystery remained until recently, when a language expert at the University of Heidelberg translated clay cuneiform tablets unearthed at the site in 2017. The archaeologists had discovered Mardaman, a once-important city mentioned in ancient texts, which had been thought lost to time.

The inscriptions were likely written around 1250 BCE when Mardaman (also called Mardama) was a part of the Assyrian Empire. According to the University of Tübingen archaeologists who unearthed the tablets, they describe the "administrative and commercial affairs" between the citizens of Mardaman and their Assyrian governor Assur-nasir. The account led the researchers to believe that the area where the tablets were recovered was once the governor's palace.

Excavation site in Iraq.
Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen

Situated on trade routes connecting Mesopotamia, Anatolia (modern Turkey), and Syria, Mardaman was a bustling commercial hub in its day. It was conquered and rebuilt several times, but after it was toppled by the Turukkaeans from the neighboring Zagros Mountains sometime in the 18th century BCE, it was never mentioned again in ancient texts. Experts had assumed that marked the end of Marmadan. This latest discovery shows that the city recovered from that dark period, and still existed 500 years later.

"The cuneiform texts and our findings from the excavations in Bassetki now make it clear that that was not the end," lead archeologist Peter Pfälzner said in a press statement. "The city existed continuously and achieved a final significance as a Middle Assyrian governor's seat between 1250 and 1200 BCE."

This lost chapter of history may never have been uncovered if the clay tablets were stored any other way. Archeologists found the 92 slabs in a pottery vessel that had been sealed with a thick layer of clay, perhaps to preserve the contents for future generations. The state in which they were found suggests they were stashed away shortly after the surrounding building was destroyed.

Ben Curtis, AFP/Getty Images
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
King Tut's Tomb Doesn't Contain Hidden Rooms After All
Ben Curtis, AFP/Getty Images
Ben Curtis, AFP/Getty Images

When Howard Carter first entered King Tut's tomb in 1922, there was a lot to uncover. Unlike most royal tombs of the ancient Egyptian kings, Tut's had remained sealed and untouched for centuries, providing a pristine treasure trove for those who would eventually stumble upon it. Now, nearly a century later, archaeologists are accepting the idea that King Tut's tomb may have no more secrets left to reveal: New radar scans show that there are no hidden rooms beyond the main burial chamber, NBC News reports.

The theory that Tut's tomb contains secret rooms first emerged in 2015. British archaeologist Nicholas Reeves claimed that high-definition laser scans conducted by Japanese and American scientists hinted at the existence of a second tomb on the other side of the chamber's walls, and that the hidden tomb possibly belonged to Queen Nefertiti, Tutankhamun's stepmother. The theory sparked excitement in Egyptology circles, but its popularity was short-lived. Radar experts cast doubts on the research saying that what appeared to be a wall or a room could easily be a geologic feature. Archaeologists and Egyptologists began calling for more evidence.

The newest study on the matter will likely debunk the hidden tomb theory for good. According to findings by Italian researchers presented at the fourth International Tutankhamun Conference in Cairo, ground-penetrating radar shows conclusively that there are no hidden rooms or corridors adjacent to Tut's tomb. The new scan represents the most comprehensive radar survey of the area ever conducted.

Even without hidden rooms, Tut's tomb and the artifacts it contained make up one of the world's most impressive archaeological sites. The public will be able to view 4500 of the young ruler's possessions when they go on display at a new museum in Cairo in 2022.

[h/t NBC News]


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