At the end of January, four-year-old Lily Wilder spotted the best-preserved dinosaur track from the area at Bendricks Bay in Wales. The track is from a beach known for footprints from crocodilians, extinct ancestors of modern crocodiles. The dinosaur that made the print probably stood 30 inches (75 centimeters) tall and 8.2 feet (2.5 meters) long. Its 4-inch (10 cm) track looks similar to that of the dinosaur Coelophysis, though that particular species lived in North America, not what is now Europe.
The Bendricks Bay is well known—and protected by the Geological Society of London—for its fossilized footprints and layers of sediment deposits. The rock formation is about 220 million years old, and the first dinosaurs appeared about 230 million years ago, so the footprints at Bendricks Bay are a mix of early dinosaur and crocodilian species.
“It was Lily and Richard (her father) who discovered the footprint,” Lily’s mother Sally Wilder said in a statement. “Lily saw it as they were walking along, and said ‘Daddy look.’ “She is really excited but doesn’t quite grasp how amazing it is.”
Lily told NBC News that she loves dinosaurs (her favorite is the T-Rex) and has a collection of toys and models. Lily’s father, Richard, took photographs of the footprint and shared them with their family, and Lily’s grandmother encouraged them to connect with experts who could take a closer look at the print.
“This fossilized dinosaur footprint from 220 million years ago is one of the best-preserved examples from anywhere in the U.K. and will really aid palaeontologists to get a better idea about how these early dinosaurs walked,” Cindy Howells, the paleontology curator at the museum, said in the statement.
The fossil is so detailed that the claws and pads of the feet are visible. The print is a type known as a grallator, meaning a bipedal theropod dinosaur with three toes created it. The dinosaur lived at the beginning of the Triassic period, when the region was a desert dotted with occasional saline lakes. Dinosaurs had evolved only about 10 million years before this mysterious three-toed creature walked this landscape, so its print is a tantalizing clue into early dinosaur history, according to National Museum Wales.
Many of the footprints immortalized in Bendricks Bay were left by ancient crocodilians, but the footprint that Lily found was made by a primitive dinosaur that hunted small animals and insects. Museum paleontologists couldn’t identify the species of dinosaur that left the track because no bones from a matching species have been found in the United Kingdom. A similar dinosaur called a Coelophysis once lived in what’s now North America, but has not been found in the U.K.
The footprint was removed from the bay after the National Museum Cardiff got approval from Natural Resources Wales to do so. (Removing prints from the bay is illegal.) The print will go to the museum’s collections, where it can be used for research. The print will also be preserved and studied by future generations. When it goes on display, Young paleontologist Lily will be listed beside it.