Researchers from the University of Manchester have discovered a myriad of footprint fossils along Formby Beach in northwest England. The archaeological find reveals the 9,000-year-old story of the coastline, most notably the impact of humans on the area.
The article on these footprints, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, described a total of 31 footprint beds. What’s amazing is the sheer amount of information scientists can gain from studying these fossils. They determined that one complete footprint belonged to a young man, who possessed a tailor’s bunion, indicative of a barefoot lifestyle. Conclusions like this have been drawn from similar sites, most notably the famous footprints in New Mexico, where, by studying the shape size and spread of the steps, researchers were able to determine that the maker of these footprints was carrying a child and moving in haste, travelling at a speed of around 3.8mph. In the absence of bones and ancient tools, footprints can tell the story of our past.
Today these footprints are threatened by the very ecosystem that revealed them. Important archaeological sites, like Happisbugh in Norfolk, risk being lost to erosion and increased rainfall and sea-level rise brought about by climate change only accelerate this process. Scientists are in a race against time to discover important fossils before they are lost forever.
Interestingly, the article observes the diversity of species they find at Formby Beach and how this mysteriously declines as we get closer to the present day. Researchers can’t be sure what caused this species’ decline. It may be the result of habitat shrinkage and redistribution of species brought about by rising sea levels or there may be a more anthropological explanation. A prominent theory is that native species could have been outcompeted by domestic animals in the advent of agriculture or hunted by growing human populations.
Whatever the reason for this diversity decline, the fossils of Formby Beach provide an eerie reflection of the present day. Rising sea levels caused by climate change threaten the habitats of coastal species. Britain itself is facing an “ecological crisis,” where, since 1970, there has been a 40% decline in native species. 72% of land in the UK is used for agriculture, leaving wild species with nowhere to go. This story of the past poses a stark reminder of what can happen when human activity goes unchecked.