Everyone knows that the footprints of prehistoric creatures are rare, and that their fossilized remains are even rarer. But finding footprints and fossils together is almost never heard of, which is what has paleontologists so worked up about the fossilized Protoceratops pictured here. Outlined by a white box is a footprint that paleontologists say closely matches the left foot of a Protoceratops. The question is: does the footprint in question actually belong to this Protoceratops?
The fossilized remains of this small, horned dinosaur were originally discovered over 45 years ago, but the associated footprint was only noticed recently; Grzegorz Niedźwiedzki and Tomasz Singer, who have just published a paper reporting their findings, noticed the footprint while the skeleton and matrix were being prepared.
"Finding a dinosaur dead in its tracks constitutes the holy grail of vertebrate ichnology," the authors write in their paper (ichnology is the branch of paleontology concerned with traces of organismal behavior — footprints, for example), describing the rarity of such finds as "the Cinderella Syndrome."
The authors continue:
Despite discoveries of invertebrates dead in their tracks, and the feet of animals mired in place, there are no confirmed reports of vertebrates literally dead in their diagnostically identifiable tracks.
And if you want to get technical about it, the discovery of this footprint/skeleton combination still may not meet the criteria of a "prehistoric vertebrate dead in its tracks." While the print certainly appears to belong to a Protoceratops, the authors remain skeptical as to whether the footprint in question actually belonged to the dinosaur it's planted next to.
According to Niedźwiedzki and his coauthors, the nature of the track suggests that the dinosaur it belonged to was moving when it left the track. Be that as it may, the authors still hail the discovery as an important milestone in the maturation of the field of vertebrate ichnology.