Several pits at the restaurant in Leshan, Sichuan province, contained the footprints of two sauropods, a type of dinosaur that lived in the early Cretaceous, said Lida Xing, paleontologist and associate professor at China University of Geosciences.
Xing’s team confirmed the discovery Saturday using a 3D scanner.
Sauropods, known for their long necks and tails, were the largest animals that have ever walked the earth. They could grow into three school buses and were so heavy that the ground must have shaken as they walked.
The two sauropods that left the footprints probably measured about 8 meters (26 feet) in body length, Xing said.
The footprints of two sauropods, discovered in Leshan, Sichuan, China.
Courtesy of Lida Xing
Although many dinosaur fossils from the Jurassic period have been discovered in Sichuan, far fewer fossils from the Cretaceous period have been found. The Cretaceous is when “the dinosaurs really flourished,” Xing said, adding, “this discovery is actually like a jigsaw puzzle, adding evidence to Sichuan’s Cretaceous and the diversity of dinosaurs.”
China’s rapid development in recent decades has made paleontology – the study of ancient life through fossil records – more difficult, Xing said.
“It’s rare to find fossils in the city, because they were all covered by buildings,” he said. His team aims to visit sites of potential discovery within 48 hours of receiving a report, fearing they “could be destroyed by construction work in days,” he added.
Before it became a restaurant, the place was used as a chicken farm, with the dinosaur footprints buried by layers of dirt and sand – which protected them from erosion and weather damage.
Lida Xing and his team visited the site after receiving a report of possible dinosaur footprints from a restaurant.
Courtesy of Lida Xing
The dirt was first removed about a year ago when the restaurant opened. The owner liked the natural look of the uneven stone, so left it untouched instead of smoothing it with cement, Xing said.
As a result, “these footprints were well protected,” Xing said. “When we went there, we found that the footprints were very deep and quite clear, but no one had thought of (the possibility).”
The restaurant owner has now fenced the place to prevent people from stepping on the pits, and can build a shed to further protect the footprints, Xing said, adding that it was a welcome sign of greater scientific interest among the public.
“If it was 10 years ago, no one would send me pictures of suspected dinosaurs (fossils or footprints),” he said. “But now I get quite a few from ordinary citizens, and I confirm more dinosaur footprints every year.”
Experts examine dinosaur footprints in a restaurant yard in Leshan, Sichuan Province, China. The results were announced publicly on 16 July