Goldilocks explains lack of dino tracks

The Goldilocks Effect – where all conditions have to be ‘just right’ – might explain why dinosaur tracks have been preserved in some areas and not in others.


Computer model of a three-toed dinosaur track credit The University of Manchester

Researchers from the University of Manchester used finite element analysis – a computer modelling technique common in engineering – to simulate dinosaurs making tracks in different types of mud. They found that conditions needed to be just right for a print to be created.

The work could challenge the notion that only certain species inhabited certain terrains and might give palaeontologists the change to re-evaluate ecosystems more than 100 million years old.

“By using computer modelling, we were able to recreate the conditions involved when a 30-tonne animal makes a track,” said Dr Peter Falkingham. “That’s very hard to do with physical modelling, more so when you need to do it 20 times in 20 different types of mud.”

The researchers – which included Drs Phil Manning, Lee Margetts and Karl Bates – were able to simulate dozens of different mud conditions and control variables such as the shape of the foot or the weight of the animal independently.


Sequence of tracks and undertracks produced by a sauropod dinosaur Credit: The University of Manchester

They discovered that only the largest creatures – like the 30-tonne Brachiosaurus – could leave prints in certain muddy conditions. Lighter, more nimble dinosaurs like the Compsognathus – which was the size and weight of a chicken – could walk on deep, soft mud and leave prints where heavier animals would likely become stuck and die.

The findings suggest that many more species probably lived in areas once thought to be inhabited only with certain dinosaurs, but that their footprints either made no impression or have disappeared over time.

“As with most scientific research, this is the beginning,” Falkingham said. “We can use this ‘Goldilocks’ effects as a baseline for exploring more complicated factors such as the way dinosaurs moved their legs, or what happens to tracks when a mud is drying out.”

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