Ornithomimid Dinosaur Tracks from Beit Zeit, West of Jerusalem, Palestine
Ornithomimid Dinosaur Tracks from Beit Zeit, West of Jerusalem, Palestine.*

By: Norman Ali Bassam Ali Taher Khalaf-von Jaffa.


*Note: This article was published in "Gazelle: The Palestinian Biological Bulletin". Number 56, August 2006. pp. 1-7.


Palestine's history is mostly known from the Torah, Bible and the Holy Qur'an. The Holy land is full of historical places, and is visited by many tourists and pilgrims that want to see the remarkable beauty of this country with their own eyes. Palestine is sometimes called "The land were the time began", and it contains treasures to be seen from the Mesozoic period, which is not so well known. Thanks to Prof. Moshe Avnimelech (Ex-Head of the Paleontology Department in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem), who described the dinosaur tracks of the Judean Hills, the historical wealth of Palestine goes further back in time than anyone ever had expected. In Beit Zeit, just a few km. from the historical and cultural Centrum of Al-Quds (Jerusalem City), ninety to hundred million years old dinosaur tracks give great insight in the prehistoric life of the Middle East.
The Beit Zeit tracks are of prime scientific value. They record one of the major links in the biological chain of development on earth.

The Discovery:

The discovery of the Beit Zeit (Beth Zayit) dinosaur tracks, just a few km. west of Jerusalem, was made by Mr. Mordechai Sofer, a former geology student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. During the summer of 1962, Mr. Mordechai Sofer informed Prof. Moshe Avnimelech that mysterious imprints were left in the rocks in the garden of Mr. Schwarzwald, who was as Mr. Sofer, a resident of the Beit Zeit village. The next day Prof. Moshe Avnimelech visited the construction site. What he found was a continuous row of tracks, stretching for some 10 meter. It seemed that the tracks went on onto the hillock to the east and north of the exposed area. Later when a further area of 400 sq. m. was uncovered numerous additional tracks similar in form, pattern and direction were revealed.

Age of the tracks:

The age of the tracks is fixed by what is known of the geological structure and history of the Judean Hills, a layer at least 500 meter thick that constitute a part of a series of strata deposited from the Early Cretaceous (Barremian Period) to the Late Cretaceous (Campanian period). The strata were the tracks are found are usually assigned to the lowest part of the Cenomanian series, but the possibility that they belong to the Upper Albian may not be excluded. So, the age may be estimated ninety to hundred million years.

Nature of the rocks:

The nature of the rocks on which the tracks were made indicates a marine origin, composed out of dolomitic-marly limestone in regular 10-15 cm. thick layers, with the seams of marl in between. The fossils in part of the layers are chiefly of marine gastropods of shallow-water character. Imprints of terrestrial plants were found in some of the layers, indicating the nearness of the shore. In certain layers, concentrations may be observed of reddish-brown earthy material, which is obviously derived from the adjacent land area.

Form and arrangement:

The form and arrangement of the tracks clearly show that the tracks were made by a biped. Often only the digits were imprinted but sometimes even the tarsals were pressed into the rock surface. The imprints of the tarsals show that these were elongated, so it is lengthening the foot. The tracks are made by theropod dinosaurs which were carnivorous, and had four toes of which the first was short and high.

Trackmaker:

In general shape and appearance to trackmaker may have been similar to the North American genus Struthiomimus. It appears that the trackmaker belongs to one of the families of the group Coelurosauria, specially the Coeluridae and Ornithomimidae of which the first seems to fit the tracks more closely. However, considering the dinosaur remains discovered in eastern and northern Africa (Tanzania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt) the possibility can not be excluded that Elaphrosaurus bambergi lived once in the vicinity of Beit Zeit, Palestine. The trackmaker had an estimated length of the hind-limbs up to the waist, 140 cm; the forelimbs were attached to the shoulders at a height of approximately 150-160 cm. The height of the animal, when standing upright, was 230-250 cm, and the length of the animal was from tip to tail about 360-380 cm, and weighted approximately 150 kg.

Types:

The Beit Zeit site is an area of approximately four hundred meters on which more than two hundred tracks can be seen. Several types of tracks can be distinguished, which might belong to three species. The most frequent type is characterized by an angle of 70 to 90 degrees between the outhermost digits. The length of these digits is 18-20 cm while the length of the middle digit (III) is 24-27 cm.

The length and thickness of the tracks vary with the heaviness of tread and the properties of the soil. A round or rectangular depression was formed at the place where the digits were joined: it is bulb-shaped and is evidently the imprint of a tarsal bone or bones. The outhermost digits of the second type make a broad arc with their base, giving the footprints the shape of an anchor; and in this type the length of the central digit is as with the first 40 to 50% greater than that of the outhermost digits.

The third type differs from the first and second in that the base of the digits is almost straight. It is however, possible that this is only accidental, and can be attributed to the mode of the tread. Several isolated tracks with digits of almost equal length are totally different. The digits are splayed out at an angle of nearly 120 degrees; the external ones are bent out to form a smooth arc. These tracks are probably of the fore-limb, which may explain their rarity. Tracks of different times of passage are also distinguishable: the earlier are blurred, as they were subsequently covered by a thin layer of new sediment.

There are several 10-15 meter long rows of tracks which are made up of 15 to 20 footprints, and other shorter rows, only 3 to 4 meter long, consisting of no more than 4 to 6. In general, the direction of the long rows of tracks which are more prominent than the short ones - is from south to north or north to south, whereas the direction of the shorter rows is commonly from northeast to southwest or vice versa. Only few of the very shortest rows run approximately east-west or west-east. In the area, it is possible to make out three long rows which trend north-south, more than a dozen medium rows, and 4-5 short rows which run east-west.

Ornithomimosaurs:

Ornithomimosaurs ("Bird mimic lizards") or members of the clade Ornithomimosauria are theropod dinosaurs, like Gallimimus, which bore a superficial resemblance to modern ostriches. They were fast, fleet-footed, omnivorous and herbivorous dinosaurs from the Upper Cretaceous of Laurasia (Asia, Europe and North America). The skull, sitting atop a long neck, was relatively small with large eyes. Some primitive species had teeth, but most had toothless beaks. The arms were long and slender and bore powerful claws. The limbs were long and powerful, with a long foot and short, strong toes terminating in hooflike claws. Ornithomimosaurs were probably among the fastest of all dinosaurs. Like many other coelurosaurs, the ornithomimid hide was probably feathered rather than scaly.
The group first appears in the Lower Cretaceous and persisted until the Upper Cretaceous. They appear to be related to less derived coelurosaurian theropods such as Compsognathus and tyrannosaurids. Primitive members of the group include Pelecanimimus, Shenzhousaurus, Harpymimus, and probably the huge Deinocheirus, the arms of which reached eight feet in length. More advanced species, members of the family ornithomimidae, include Gallimimus, Archaeornithomimus, Anserimimus, Struthiomimus, and Ornithomimus.
Ornithomimosaurs probably got most of their calories from plants but may have eaten small vertebrates and insects as well. Henry Fairfield Osborn suggested that the long, sloth-like arms may have been used to pull down branches for ornithomimosaurs to feed on; it may also have been a dangerous weapon. The sheer abundance of ornithomimids — they are the most common small dinosaurs in North America — are consistent with the idea that they were plant eaters, as herbivores usually outnumber carnivores in an ecosystem. The presence of gastroliths in the stomach of some ornithomimids fit this hypothesis.
Some paleontologists, like Paul Sereno, consider the enigmatic alvarezsaurids to be close relatives of the ornithomimosaurs, and places them together in the superfamily Ornithomimoidea.

Struthiomimus:

Struthiomimus ("Ostrich-mimic") was a long-legged, ostrich-like dinosaur of the family Ornithomimidae, which lived in Alberta, Canada during the Late Cretaceous period, about 85 to 80 million years ago. It was about 1.50 meters (5 feet) tall at the hips and weighed around 250 kg (500 lbs). Struthiomimus is one of the more common small dinosaurs in Dinosaur Provincial Park; its abundance suggests that it was an herbivore or an omnivore rather than a carnivore. It most likely lived on a diet of lizards, small mammals, fruits, and seeds, although some scientists theorize that it may have used its hooked claws to dig up clams and other shellfish, or possibly eggs.
The legs were long, powerful and seemingly well-suited to rapid running, like an ostrich. The neck was slender and ended in a small, beaked skull with relatively large eyes. The 'arms' were long and fairly strong; the fore limbs were more powerful and the claws were more strongly hooked than in Ornithomimus. It also had the typical characteristics of most ornithomimids: a long, stiff tail and a toothless beak. Predators of Struthiomimus may have included Saurornitholestes, Dromaeosaurus, and the tyrannosaurs Daspletosaurus and Gorgosaurus. The best-preserved skeleton of Struthiomimus is currently on display at the American Museum of Natural History, in Manhattan, New York. The best skull is currently on display at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, in Drumheller, Alberta, Canada.
Struthiomimus is also known from the Horseshoe Canyon Formation of Alberta and the Hell Creek Formation of Montana, suggesting that the dinosaur may have lived along the river banks of its day. These animals have not been thoroughly studied yet but they may represent new species of Struthiomimus.

Elaphrosaurus:

Elaphrosaurus was one of the earliest ornithomimids (ostrich dinosaurs), Elaphrosaurus was a relative of Dromiceiomimus, Gallimimus, Ornithomimus, and Struthiomimus. It was probably one of the earliest members of that family and fossil bones have been found that date back to the late Jurassic period. Most "ostrich dinosaurs" are found from the Cretaceous period. A distant relative is Ornitholestes, a small dinosaur only half the size of Elaphrosaurus.
Elaphrosaurus was a carnivore from late Jurassic Tanzania, 145 million years ago. Scientists aren't sure what its head looked like, as its skull was never found. Elaphrosaurus was probably a Ceratosaur and probably was about 5 meters long. It was discovered by the German paleontologist Werner Janensch*, in the Tendaguru Beds of Tanzania, which has also yielded Brachiosaurus, Allosaurus, and Kentrosaurus, to name a few.

What is known about Elaphrosaurs comes from a nearly complete skeleton found in the Tendaguru Beds. What is known about it is that it was a long slender dinosaur, with a long neck, possibly for digging into carrion. There have been very few theropods skeletons found there, just bits and pieces, and this was a rare find.
Because the skeleton had no head, the Elaphrosaurus was displayed with a skull based on Velociraptor. A related animal, or perhaps the same species, has been found in the Morrison Formation.

When it was alive, it would have been about 16.5 feet long, may be 5 feet tall at the hip, weighing may be 460 pounds. It was built as a fast runner, probably running down small prey on the open plains. Because of its long legs, some think it may have been the fastest runner of the Jurassic. With long, slender legs and a stiff tail, Elaphrosaurus would have easily sprinted from danger. It had keen eyes and a quick brain. Its diet probably depended on where it lived. Near the sea it might have grubbed around for shellfish or shoveled sand for tiny creatures. Some lived far inland and others foraged among woods and forests. Since it had no teeth, Elaphrosaurus could not have eaten meat.


* Werner Janensch was a German paleontologist and museum curator (the Natural History Museum of Berlin) who led an expedition (with Edwin Hennig) to the Tendaguru Beds in Deutsch-Ostafrika, what is now Tanzania, Africa. That expedition found many late Jurassic period dinosaurs, including some Brachiosaurus. Janensch named Dicraeosaurus (1914) and Elaphrosaurus (1920).


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