Today guest post regular Gareth Dyke talks about his recent work on a set of bird tracks from Morocco, alleged to be the oldest evidence for the avians. But things are more complex than they first appear….
Thanks to Matteo Belvedere’s mastery of laser scanning technology we were recently able to re-examine and re-work a set of quite well-known tracks from the Jurassic of Morocco. We hope that you will be convinced by our arguments that the tracks we re-describe are NOT from birds (or, at least, we cannot show that they are from birds) and are thus more likely the result of some small non-avian theropod dinosaurs marching around the place.
Of course, the previous interpretation of these Moroccan tracks as birds was quite important as – if correct – that would make these footprints some of the oldest possible evidence for avians, and from an area that comprised part of Gondwana no less … The oldest confirmed bird that we know about is, of course, Archaeopteryx but older tracks – supposed to have been made by birds – have often been cited as evidence for the antiquity of the avian lineage. Some have argued, for example, that birds can be dated as old as the Triassic based on footprints. Perhaps the techniques that Matteo is pioneering can aid our analyses of this part of the fossil record.
Our work, recently published in Gondwana Research, came about thanks to Matteo who is an expert on fossil tracks. I met him for the first time at the the First International Meeting of North African VP that was held in May 2009 in Marrakech, Morocco (organised by another mutual pal, Nour-Eddine Jalil) (You can see the contents of the special volume that resulted here). Knowing of my work with birds, our co-author Shinobu Ishigaki suggested to me at the conference a collaboration on these tracks. Shinobu had first described them in 1985.
I’ve been working in Morocco for a number of years and have so far been fortunate to publish a few papers on the country’s geology and palaeontology. This year I participated in a substantial review that deals with the known vertebrate assemblages from the Late Cretaceous in the Moroccan southeast, including the famous Kem Kem beds (reknowned, of course, for their dinosaurs) (Cavin et al. 2010) and I have a short, popular article about to appear in Current Biology.
We’ve done a few field trips to the Kem Kem over the last number of years and hope to be back over there in 2011. Certainly, there’s lots of work to be done in Morocco and in other North African countries. With Nour-Eddine in Marrakech and other workers in the UK, Italy and France we certainly expect a series of long-term projects to come to fruition over the coming months and years. After all, palaeontology takes time!
Cavin, L., Tong, H., Boudad, L., Meister, C., Piuz, A., Tabouelle, J., Aarab, M., Amiot, R., Buffetaut, E., Dyke, G., Hua, S. and Le Loeuff, J. 2010. Vertebrate assemblages from the early Late Cretaceous of southeastern Morocco: an overview. Journal of African Earth Sciences 57: 391-412.