Mystery of the ‘phantom’ footprint solved with fossil rediscovery

14 Mar 2018

The Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria. Image: kenary820/Shutterstock

A 19th-century hermit ended up being key to an important dinosaur-era discovery that seems to validate ‘phantom’ fossil footprints.

Approximately 260m years ago, before there were dinosaurs, there was a group of early mammal relatives called dicynodonts that looked somewhat bizarre by modern standards, with turtle-like beaks and big tusks.

While once thriving, they were eventually driven to extinction 50m years later – or at least that was what we believed.

Now, an astonishing rediscovery of a fossil in the collection of a 19th-century hermit indicates that dicynodonts actually lived alongside dinosaurs, confirming a once-held theory.

Back in the 1950s, suspiciously dicynodont-like footprints were found alongside dinosaur prints in southern Africa, suggesting the presence of a late-surviving ‘phantom’ dicynodont unknown in the skeletal record.

These so-called phantom prints were so out of place that, since then, they have been disregarded by palaeontologists as evidence, but the discovery of these ancient bones in a centuries-old collection changes everything we know about what animals were around in the Late Triassic period.

“Although we tend to think of palaeontological discoveries coming from new fieldwork, many of our most important conclusions come from specimens already in museums,” said Dr Christian Kammerer of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and author of the new study.

Gogga lives on

As for the hermit who held on to the evidence for all those years, his name was Alfred ‘Gogga’ Brown and he was an amateur palaeontologist who collected the fossils in South Africa in the 1870s, but had failed to convince researchers back in Europe of their importance.

Despite his reclusive nature, he shipped the fossils to the Natural History Museum in Vienna in 1876, but they were sent without a description, leaving them pretty much untouched for more than a century until Kammerer came along.

“As I went through this collection, I found more and more bones matching a dicynodont instead of a dinosaur, representing parts of the skull, limbs and spinal column,” he said.

While no longer around to appreciate it, Brown’s role in showing the existence of a Late Triassic dicynodont has been honoured by Kammerer, by naming the rediscovered species Pentasaurus goggai (Gogga’s five-toed lizard).

Details of the finding have been published in the journal Palaeontologia Africana.

The Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria. Image: kenary820/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic