Initial Publication Date: October 17, 2006

Ichnology: The Study of Tracks and Traces

This page was written by Ewan Wolff, Montana State University Geoscience Education Web Development Team

"Without tracks we have to reconstruct extinct animals from their lifeless bones, and as experience has taught us, such reconstructions are not always correct. In addition, tracks are always made exactly where animals passed by-what geologists call in situ. By contrast, bones may be washed long distances before they finally come to rest in the sedimentary layers in which we find them. Dinosaurs may have floated far out to sea. Thus, tracks are an integral part of the ancient ecosystems in which they are found." Martin Lockley and Christian Meyer Dinosaur Tracks and Other Fossil Footprints of Europe
This large-footed orange brushfowl is about to make a sizeable track at Mt. Koot-tha Preserve in Brisbane, Australia. Details

What is Ichnology?

Ichnology is the scientific term for the study of tracks and traces. This includes vertebrate footprints, nests, and burrows, and some would even argue that eggs, fossilized feces and bite marks count in this category too. The term also refers to invertebrate movement traces, burrows and borings. Ichnology is the single greatest evidence for behavior of extinct animals.

Check out these resources to learn more about traces:

Check out these resources to learn more about tracks:

Check out these resources to learn more about trackways:

Check out these resources for ideas on teaching about traces, tracks and trackways:

  • A Laboratory Exercise on Determining Dinosaur Speeds Using Dimensional Analysis This Journal of Geoscience Education article describes a laboratory exercise in which measurements from a dinosaur trackway are used to estimate how fast the dinosaur track makers were moving. The exercise, which is appropriate for any introductory earth-science course at the secondary-school or college level, introduces students to dimensional analysis by having them construct an empirical graph of dimensionless stride length versus dimensionless velocity. The students then estimate the dimensionless stride length from the trackway data and use the dimensionless graph to determine the speeds of the dinosaurs.
  • Footprints as Inquiry-Based Learning Tools This Journal of Geoscience Education article describes three activities using biogenic and physical traces in the recreation of past events to help develop student understanding of the process of science without sacrificing substantive geoscience content. Human footprints, dinosaur trackways, and sliding-rock trails investigations presented here can be utilized in a variety of K-12 grade levels.