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27 footprints at Aussie beach lead to 129-million-year-old discovery

The coastline had been a popular snorkelling spot for generations, but no one noticed the tiny footprints until now.

The discovery of ancient markings etched in rocks at a Victorian beach could help transform our understanding of life on Earth.

Chances of ever finding the tiny fossils were one in a million as they have only been visible at low tide. And generations of local swimmers and snorkellers visiting Wonthaggi’s rugged coastline had missed them. Then a local prospector looking for dinosaur bones began noticing the markings and documented 27 over several years.

Located 150km east of Melbourne, the fossils show all the hallmarks of being bird footprints. That analysis has got researchers excited because other than one bone and a couple of feathers, these tracks are the oldest-known evidence of an avian presence in Australia — it’s believed they’re from the early cretaceous period.

Arrows highlight the footprints in the rock.
The footprints are some of the oldest found in the Southern Hemisphere. Source: Martin et al 2003/PLOS ONE

Why are these bird footprints so important?

Monash University’s Emeritus Professor Patricia Vickers-Rich told Yahoo News Australia the discovery shifts our thinking about the ancient migration of birds.

“For a long time, there’s been this idea that everything developed and came south. On the other hand, we’re finding more and more material that suggests some of the movement was south to north,” she said.

Left - A woman walking on the rock flats at Wonthaggi. Right - a map of Victoria.
The fossils were found on coastal rocks at Wonthaggi. Source: Ray Dahlstrom/Google Maps

This bias in thinking can be traced back to two major factors. The most obvious is the lack of bird fossil discoveries across ancient Gondwana, the continent that Australia was once part of. But another key reason is that most people live in the northern hemisphere, and therefore that’s where most of the research and discoveries have historically occurred.

Why ancient footprints could have been lost

Vickers-Rich was part of an international effort to study the fossils that included a palaeontologist from Emery University in the United States, Museums Victoria, and local prospector Melissa Lowery. They concluded the footprints were between 120-129 million years old and published their findings in the journal PLOS ONE.

After studying at the University of California, Berkeley and then Colombia, Vickers-Rich travelled to Australia in the 1970s. “It was a very exciting place to come. There was a lack of information about it compared to where I was brought up in California, so it was a better place to be,” she said.

Vickers-Rich was drawn to Wonthaggi because of its wealth of fossils and has never left. The town is home to the oldest dinosaur discovery in the country, and continues to be central to Australia’s ongoing paleontological research.

The bird footprints have for the most part been collected and relocated to dry land so they can undergo further study. “If they’d been left on the shore platform they’d be gone by now because of the erosion,” Vickers-Rich said.

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