'Firewalker' dinosaurs survived in a 'land of fire'

Lava-laden footprints reveal a brutal survival as Jurassic extinction began.

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Rae Hodge was a senior editor at CNET. She led CNET's coverage of privacy and cybersecurity tools from July 2019 to January 2023. As a data-driven investigative journalist on the software and services team, she reviewed VPNs, password managers, antivirus software, anti-surveillance methods and ethics in tech. Prior to joining CNET in 2019, Rae spent nearly a decade covering politics and protests for the AP, NPR, the BBC and other local and international outlets.
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Palaeoenvironmental reconstruction of the Highlands ichnosite at the Pliensbachian-Toarcian boundary.

Bordy et al, 2020 / PLOS

At the start of an Early Jurassic mass extinction, a group of dinosaurs (and their prehistoric relatives) survived in a "land of fire" in southern Africa, according to a study published Wednesday. 

The study, published in open-access journal PLOS One, identified the footprints of three types of animals -- bipedal meat-eating dinosaurs, their four-legged herbivore counterparts and a group of mammalian and mammal-adjacent creatures. In total, researchers documented 25 footprints across five trackways around the Karoo Basin, a location known for its igneous rock deposits.

"The fossil footprints were discovered within a thick pile of ancient basaltic lava flows that are ~183 million years old," said the study's lead author, Emese Bordy, in a release. "The fossil tracks tell a story from our deep past on how continental ecosystems could co-exist with truly giant volcanic events that can only be studied from the geological record, because they do not have modern equivalents, although they can occur in the future of the Earth." 

Researchers said the location of the fossils between layers of sandstone indicates that a variety of animals survived in the area even after volcanic activity had begun and the region was transformed into a "land of fire." 

The fossils of the Karoo Basin have a lot to teach us about how local ecosystems responded to these intense environmental stresses at the onset of a global mass extinction, researchers said. And further research to uncover more fossils and refine the dating of local rock layers has the potential to provide this invaluable data.