Roadside Finds

You can find a fossil anywhere, even on the side of a highway! What kinds of creatures walked here, and what should you do if you find their fossils?

Questions to keep in mind

  • How detailed are most fossils?
  • Where can you find fossils?
  • Do you think most fossils have already been found?
Take the Quiz

Clues in the rocks

You find an amazing footprint, it’s so detailed you can even see the texture of the dinosaur skin! Sometimes you can also find clues that show you how a dinosaur was moving.

Lisa: Looking at ankylosaur footprints again. So we’ve got toe, toe, and it gets a little funky over here. Then the back of foot. There’s skin impressions.

Lisa traces around a fossilized partial ankylosaur footprint sticking out from a boulder next to a road.

Richard: Let’s take a look at the skin impressions.

Little bumps of skin texture are visible on the heel of the footprint.

Lisa: Lumpy texture right there and there’s also slide marks.

Richard: You can see exit striations.

Lisa traces her finger along several straight lines that are visible at the back of the footprint.

Lisa: So as the tubercles, the grips on the bottom of the dinosaur’s foot slid into the muck, it left these little grooves.

Richard: Skin impressions are, well, there are more people noticing them more now, but not too long ago, twenty-some years ago, there were only a few footprints, Cretaceous dinosaur footprints that had been found with skin impressions. So it’s always nice to see those.

What stepped here?

Ankylosaur fossils with different numbers of fingers and toes, and ankylosaur trackways with different numbers of fingerprints and toe prints have been found. How many fingers and toes does this species found in Europe have?

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A reddish-brown dinosaur stands on all fours. Bony spikes stick out all along its back and down the top of its tail which comes to a point. A big soft belly hangs between its legs. Its feet and hands each have five toes. Its closed mouth is almost beak-like in shape.

Have you heard of lumposaurs?

Lumposaur footprints are any dinosaur footprints that are so worn that they are hard to identify. Being a paleontologist can mean looking at a lot of lumpy rocks!

Lisa traces around a crescent-shaped lump protruding from a rock.

Richard: There, looks like there’s a handprint right over there. And it’s facing the other way. So the this footprint—can you point in the direction that footprint was going?

Another bump on the same rock is more distinctly foot-shaped.

Lisa: That way.

Lisa points away from the camera.

Richard: In the handprint here is going…

Lisa: That way.

Lisa points towards the camera.

Richard: That way. And, again, can you outline that one? Great. So there are the toes, and there’s a big crescentic back margin.

Lisa traces around the crescent lump again.

Lisa: This lump might be the footprint that goes with it, but hard to say.

Lisa points at an even less distinct bump behind the crescent-shaped lump.

Richard: You’re kind of lucky to… Usually, it always seems that if you have a good handprint, you have a pretty bad footprint or good footprint, you have a pretty bad handprint. So again, there’s another slab next to it that has some very worn footprints.

Another rock has a much smoother texture with several footprints that are more worn from erosion.

Lisa: Might be a couple of toes there

Richard: And over there, another slab with some prints, lumposaurs, not very good morphology.

The prints on this rock have no visible toes. They are just bumps.

Lumps to life

What do you think a lumposaur would like. Draw one in your field journal or print out this activity!
A brown silhouette of a lumpy dinosaur footprint. It is labeled ‘lumposaur’. A toe or two is discernible, but it is difficult to make out any other distinct features.

Ancient plants

You find a detailed fossil of a plant with broad leaves from the Cretaceous Period, but ferns and conifers were more common at this time. Which are more common now?

Lisa points to a recessed leaf vein in a rock. A white overlay highlights the subtle structure.

Lisa: There, leaf vein there

Richard: Nice, and below that, there’s a bit of a log, there. You see the wood impressions.

Below the leaf, wood grain impressions run along the surface of the rock. A white overlay traces out these lines made from the wood.

Crocodiles in BC!

You spot an ankylosaur trackway in the rock, and Richard points out a crocodile track next to it. Crocodiles have long, inward-pointing claws. Can you see the two different tracks?

Richard: So right there is the crocodile track.

Looking up at a grey slate overhang, three parallel fossilized claw marks are visible protruding from the surface. An overlayed depth map highlights where the tracks are on the overhang. An image of a recently made crocodile track shows three similar marks in sand.

Richard: and over here, these are the little ankylosaur tracks.

Looking up at the same overhang, several small ankylosaur footprints protrude near the crocodile tracks.

Fossil burrows

Very slight bumps on the surface of a large grey rock are the casts of marine invertebrate burrows.

Lisa: Little burrows all over the place.

A large chunk of rock lays by the roadside. Lisa points to tiny bumps on its surface that are barely visible.

Richard: So those little tiny bumps on the surface or natural casts of invertebrate traces. So everything here is upside down the slab would have been oriented completely the other way, flipped over. That’s always something to keep in mind. It could have just as easily fallen track-side down.

Lisa: Yeah, then we would see nothing.

Richard: We would see nothing.

Which came first?

Certain fossils are found only at specific times. We can use these fossils to tell when in time the rock layer formed.
An illustration of rock layers representing different geological periods. The layers contain many of the same small common fossils as well as rarer fossils.

Dinosaurs crossing

Did ankylosaurs really walk along roads? No, but this shows you how big they were, and that you can find fossils in surprising places.

A reddish-brown spiky ankylosaur walks on all fours alongside a two-lane road. A grey cliff with trees atop it stands next to the road. Gravel crunches under its feet. Its tail sways behind it as it walks along.

All about ankylosaurs

Lisa and Richard have seen a lot of ankylosaur footprints. What can we learn from them?

Looking up at a grey slate overhang, six small ankylosaur footprints protrude from the surface.

Richard: Over here, these are the little ankylosaur tracks.

Lisa: They’re so cute.

An overlayed depth map highlights where the tracks are on the overhang.

Richard: Yeah, those would have been a little ankylosaur that would have been about the size of a coffee table. A small coffee table. So, yeah, very interesting, very interesting site. So we’ve not described ankylosaur trackways that are this small.

How big were ankylosaurs?

Measure your height and draw yourself on the worksheet, or in your journal next to a 5-metre long ankylosaur.
Profile rendering of an ankylosaur standing on all fours. Its body, including tail, measures 5.5 metres long, but it only stands 1.5 metres tall. Bony spikes stretch all along its back.

Look up!

The footprint fossils are found on the underside of a rock overhang on this cliff. Why do you think this makes them difficult, and dangerous, to study?

A black truck drives along a two-lane highway. A rocky cliff embraces the left of the road and a river gently flows by to the right.

Richard: So the, because it’s a cliff, it is sort of a dangerous site to approach.

A grey slate cliff face looms above. An overhang protrudes outward creating a covered spot beneath.

Richard: We’ve been to it and I’ve done some research on it. We took some 3D images of a number of tracks.

A multi-coloured scan of the overhang. The colours represent the depth of several protrusions on its surface.

Richard: Now the main focus is going to be on the underside of a ledge.

Looking directly up at the overhang from below several small protrusions are visible.

Richard: Like there’s an overhanging ledge at this cliff and it’s always good to take a look under these things.

Richard and Lisa sit in the front seat of a car as they drive down a road.

Richard: And I took a look under the ledges and noticed tracks under there and there’s some pretty interesting footprints and trackways.

Found a fossil?

What should you do to document it? Listen to Lisa and Richard to find out.

Richard and Lisa sit in the front seat of a car as they drive down a road.

Richard: But you never know what you’re gonna find when you check out these little road cuts. So it’s always good to take a look at them.

Standing on the side of the road, Lisa traces around a fossilized ankylosaur footprint with her finger.

Richard: And if you find something, don’t move it, take pictures, get GPS coordinates if you can, or at least distance and direction from the nearest town and report it to a paleontologist.

Lisa takes a picture of a fossilized bone. Richard holds a GPS as he writes in a yellow note book.

Lisa: Put something for scale in the photos, not your hand, because hands are all different shapes and sizes, not your foot, because same idea.

A blue fossilized bone sits next to a ruler. A four-toed ankylosaur footprint is pictured with a scale bar placed next to it.

Richard: Or a coin.

A three-toed theropod footprint is pictured with a scale bar placed next to it.

Lisa: A coin works. Ensure that you get a nice straight-down head on shot of the specimen. A couple of angle photos are okay but really want to see the details. You want the specimen or the fossil and you think you found center in the photograph.

A bony fish fossil is darker in colour than the grey rock it is embedded in. A fossilized spinal column and ribs of a marine reptile are lighter in colour than the grey rock it is embedded in.

Richard: Yeah, so the reason is, it’s when you remove the fossil from an area you’ve removed most of the scientific value of the fossil which is its context.

A brown mountain slope covered with loose rocky debris from erosion.

Richard: If we have location, we can tell what formation it’s from, and even where within the formation it’s from.

A river flows through a valley next to a tree-covered mountain.

Which route?

Where should you construct a road? What obstacles might you encounter? Write some ideas in your journal or print this activity.
An illustrated isometric view of a landscape divided into a grid. Occupied grid spaces contain houses, parks, fossil sites, rivers and mountains that block the way of road construction.