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Footprints reveal a faster dinosaur

LONDON, England -- Dinosaur footprints have revealed that the ancient giants of 163 million years ago were capable of rapid bursts of speed, faster than previously thought.

The analysis of dinosaur tracks, reported in the journal Nature on Thursday, found that the 22-foot-long creatures were able to accelerate from a walking pace of about four miles per hour (mph) to a top speed of almost 20 mph.

The tracks, discovered in Ardley quarry, 13 miles north of Oxford, southern England, were thought to belong to the meat-eating Megalosaurus, a distant cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex.

The prints, revealed that when walking the creature pointed its toes slightly inward and took strides of about nine feet, leaving prints in a wide zigzag pattern. When running the creature pointed its clawed, three-toed feet outward and the stride almost doubled, creating footprints in an almost straight line.

At the time the area was part of a swampy, subtropical coastline, similar to the Florida Everglades, cutting straight through what is now Oxfordshire.

The area has provided palaeontologists with many dinosaur fossils and footprints.

The Megalosaurus, like the T-rex, was a theropad, which stood on two legs and fossil remains have shown that it was the dominant predator in the region during the Jurassic period.

"We knew that small theropods could run fast, but it wasn't clear if the same was true for large theropods," Dr Julia Day, who led the research team from Cambridge University, told the UK Press Association.

"The evidence here shows that these animals weren't lumbering beasts. They were much more agile than some people have imagined. "Although we don't know if they could sustain a run, they could clearly run for short bursts," Day said.

Alongside the predator tracks found were prints from a flock of sauropods, four-footed plant-eaters, thought to be left by Cetiosaurus -- a dinosaur with a long neck and tail that grew to a length of 60ft and roamed in herds.

The blend of footprints exposed were all heading in the same direction -- suggesting the Megalosaurus may have been pursuing prey.

Another member of the research team, Dr Paul Upchurch said it was possible that the predator was chasing the plant-eaters for food.

He said that if a weak Cetiosaurus had become separated from its herd it could have become a victim of the Megalosaurus despite its size.

"If you look at animals today, modern predators like lions are fairly opportunistic," he said.

"I think it's quite reasonable to assume that these large theropods would at least some of the time be interested in big sauropods, which apart from their size were pretty defenceless."

He said it is unlikely that the Megalosaurus would have run in the usual sense, with both feet leaving the ground at intervals, because it would inflict an enormous load on an animal weighing so much.

"It would probably have been walking very fast rather than galloping," said Dr Upchurch.

It is not clear whether the walking gait indicated by the footprints was habitual or only used only on soft or unstable ground, researchers said.


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