(CNN) — A surprising find has been made in southwestern China after a savvy diner discovered 100-million-year-old dinosaur footprints in the outdoor patio of a restaurant.
Several stone pits at the Leshan restaurant in Sichuan province contained the footprints of two sauropods, a type of dinosaur that lived during the early Cretaceous period, said Lida Xing, a paleontologist and associate professor at the China University of Geosciences.
Xing’s team confirmed the discovery on Saturday using a 3D scanner.
Sauropods, known for their long necks and tails, were the largest animals to walk the Earth. They could reach the length of three school buses and were so heavy that they must have shaken the ground when walking.
The two sauropods that left the tracks were probably about 8 meters long, Xing said.
Although many Jurassic dinosaur fossils have been discovered in Sichuan, far fewer Cretaceous fossils have been found. The Cretaceous period is when “dinosaurs really flourished,” Xing said, adding that “this discovery is really like a puzzle, adding a piece of evidence to Sichuan’s Cretaceous period and the diversity of dinosaurs.”
China’s rapid development in recent decades has made paleontology, the study of ancient life through the fossil record, more difficult, Xing said.
“It is rare to find fossils in the city, because they are all covered by buildings,” he said. His team aims to visit potential discovery sites within 48 hours of receiving a report, fearing they “will be destroyed by construction works within days,” he added.
Before being a restaurant, the place was used as a chicken farm, and the dinosaur footprints were buried by layers of dirt and sand, protecting them from erosion and weather damage.
The land was not removed until a year ago, when the restaurant opened. The owner liked the natural look of the uneven stone, so he left it untouched instead of leveling it with cement, Xing said.
As a result, “these prints were well protected,” Xing said. “When we went there, we found that the footprints were very deep and quite obvious, but no one had thought of [a posibilidad]”.
The restaurant owner put up a fence on the site to prevent people from stepping on the pits, and may build a shed to further protect the footprints, Xing said, adding that it was a welcome sign of increased scientific interest among the public. .
“If it was 10 years ago, no one would send me pictures of alleged [fósiles o huellas de] dinosaurs,” he said. “But now, I get quite a few from normal citizens, and I confirm several dinosaur footprints every year.”