Dinosaur prints in Jordan highlight a largely unexplored region

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AMMAN — Some 100 million years ago, dinosaurs roamed the coast of the Tethys, an ancient ocean that covered most of the modern-day Middle East. Recently, dozens of their footprints have been found on the mountain of Safaha, in the south of Jordan, according to Discover magazine. اضافة اعلان

In 2019, two Polish doctors stumbled across three-toed footprints while hiking between Shobak and the ancient city of Petra. A few months later, a team of German, Polish and Jordanian scientists surveyed the site, on the arid mountain, to document the tracks.

“We found large trackways of several small to medium-sized theropods, and also a few ornithopod footprints and one sauropod print,” says Henrik Klein, an ichnologist and paleontologist at the Palaeontological Museum in Germany.

He had participated in the expedition alongside Gerard Gierliński, a paleontologist at the University of Warsaw, and Abdalla Abu Hamad, a geology professor at the University of Jordan.

They discovered the prints in the marginal marine deposits of the Na’ur Formation, which consists of well-bedded limestones, dolomites and marls with abundant marine fossils. The three species identified — the predatory theropod, the grazing ornithopod, and the long-necked, herbivorous sauropod — indicate that the area had a flourishing ecosystem.

“It’s the first really diverse dinosaur footprint fauna in the region,” says Klein. “The footprints we found are quite small, but they are remarkably well preserved. It’s really excellent material, and it’s very rare in the Middle East.”

An underexplored region

Even though dinosaur footsteps can be found in numerous places around the world, very few have been documented in the Middle East — since much of what is now land was then covered by the sea. The first dinosaur footprint in the region was discovered in 1962 in Jerusalem. In 2008, dinosaur tracks from the Upper Jurassic were found in Yemen; more recently, a few dinosaur footprints were spotted in Lebanon and Egypt.

In Jordan, most of the fossils found so far are of marine invertebrates, such as bivalves, ammonites and foraminifers. But scientists say there is a lot of potential for other fossil discoveries: “We need more studies on dinosaur footprints in Jordan. I’m quite sure we will find more footprints in the area, but we need more systematic exploration,” said Klein.

The scientists took 3D images of the trackways near Shobak, though pandemic restrictions delayed travel plans to conduct more research in 2020 and 2021. Klein and his team published a preliminary study in Annales Societatis Geologorum Poloniae in 2020, but he says further studies are needed.

“The footprints in Jordan are an amazing discovery,” says Hesham Sallam, an Egyptian paleontologist who was not involved in the research.

In Jordan, there is still no paleontology department and no institution protecting resources beyond human history — yet some Jordanians are determined to raise awareness of the importance and value of local paleontological resources.

Omar Fasheh, a Jordanian amateur paleontologist, came across Klein’s study only recently, two years after its publication. To bring more attention to it, he decided to look for the dinosaur tracks himself.

“I’m very passionate about fossils, so when I read about the footprints, I wanted to see them,” says Fasheh.

“With my friend Mohammad Asfour, we visited the site and tried to reach out to officials and institutions to see what could be done to protect it.”

Scientists and enthusiasts hope the dinosaur footsteps will continue to pave the way for more interest in paleontology in the region, exposing more people to the field and building up local resources.

“The entire area is very important, so it should be turned into a reserve,” says Asfour, a fossil enthusiast.

But for that to happen, the site must be protected from damage and theft. Mining projects in nearby Dana, Jordan’s largest nature reserve, for example, threaten the region’s natural and historical wealth.

“Most of the resources go to mineral exploration,” explains Ikhlas Alhejoj, an associate professor of geology at the University of Jordan. “There are a lot of people interested in the region’s gold, copper and manganese. But the fossils we have are a real treasure (…) treasures that are not just important for Jordanians, but for the entire world.”

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