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Tracking a Tyrannosaur's Trail: Researchers Estimate Dinosaur's Speed

Jan 19, 2016 06:00 PM EST

Dinosaur tracks left behind by a tyrannosaur 66 million years ago have allowed researchers from the University of Alberta to estimate how fast these ginormous (speaking technically) prehistoric creatures could walk and run. The trail of footprints was found in a small Wyoming town, by paleontologist Scott Persons while visiting the Glenrock Paleon Museum.

When examining the footprints closely, researchers found they are one of a kind: Distinct three sharp-clawed toe imprints with a small fourth claw at the rear of the best track. Researchers say these features, among other traits, clearly indicate the footprints belonged to a large carnivorous dinosaur, perhaps even a juvenile T. rex - one of the largest meat-eating dinosaurs that ever lived.

"The tracks are just a bit too small to belong to a full grown T. rex," Persons explained in a release. "But they could very well be the tracks of an adolescent Tyrannosaurus rex, or they could belong to the closely-related smaller tyrannosaur Nanotyrannus. We really can't say which."

Persons was first introduced to the tracks by the museum's curator, Sean Smith. At that time Persons was only 13 years old.

"Sean led me out to a sandstone slope and started brushing away at an indented spot. At first, it looked like a prehistoric pothole," Persons recalls in the release. "But soon, I could see the imprints of three big toes each with sharp claw tips. It was so cool my jaw dropped. Then, Sean pointed up slope, and there were two more!"

Now Persons is a doctoral student in paleontology at the University of Alberta. Interested in learning more about the prehistoric footprints, he reached out to the museum, suggesting an official scientific study should be conducted.

Although several isolated tyrannosaur footprints have been found before, the Glenrock site represents only the second multi-step tyrannosaur track site known to science.

"Having a trail of tracks is important," Persons added in the university's release. "With it, you can calculate an estimate of how fast the tyrannosaur was walking."

Based on the recent study, researchers estimate the presumed juvenile T. rex was slowly trotting at a speed between 4.5 and eight kilometers per hour. This find confirms tyrannosaurs were about the same speed as many other large carnivorous dinosaurs, and suggests the large creatures were able to cover more ground in a single step than even the largest of herbivores - including duckbilled dinosaurs, which they coexisted with and hunted.

"The tracks are still in the field," Persons said. "If you go to Glenrock, today, visit the Plaeon Museum, and are up for a little hike, you can see the prints just like I did."

Casts of the footprints have been made to preserve the footprints, and are also on public display in the Glenrock Paleon Museum. Their study was recently published in the journal Cretaceous Research.

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