What Can Fossil Footprints Tell Us?

American Geosciences Institute
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Activity , Case Study
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



In this investigation based on real-life fossils found in Texas, students examine an image of multiple dinosaur fossil tracks. The students look at three panels, revealed one at a time, to try to construct an explanation for the events that created the pattern of footprint tracks in the rock. Even though students will probably come up with different explanations for the tracks, they understand that that the footprints provide valuable information for understanding dinosaur behavior.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Upper Elementary
  • Middle School
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

3-LS4-1 Analyze and interpret data from fossils to provide evidence of the organisms and the environments in which they lived long ago.

Clarification Statement: Examples of data could include type, size, and distributions of fossil organisms. Examples of fossils and environments could include marine fossils found on dry land, tropical plant fossils found in Arctic areas, and fossils of extinct organisms.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include identification of specific fossils or present plants and animals. Assessment is limited to major fossil types and relative ages.

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this performance expectation, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
This activity allows students to explore a real-life example of how scientists use fossils to understand dinosaur behavior, even though dinosaurs are extinct. This activity does not address the environment in which the organisms lived, so this activity would need to be either be proceeded or followed up with another activity (such as Coordinating a Record of the Past, also reviewed in the NGSS Hub) that does address how fossils could be a clue to the environment of the past.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this science and engineering practice, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students look at the size and position of the fossilized dinosaur tracks (logical reasoning), the number of footprints in each area (mathematical reasoning) and the distance between tracks (computation) to determine what was happening at the time that the dinosaur tracks were made. Paleontologists can learn much more about dinosaur behavior from footprint trace fossils than from the actual dinosaur body fossils. For example, paleontologists can estimate dinosaur gait and speed from some footprint tracks. Note: There does appear to be an error in the introductory portion of this activity. If the footprints are close together, this might show the animal was walking (not running). If the footprints are spaced farther apart, the dinosaurs may have been running (not walking).

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
This activity addresses the evidence about dinosaur behavior, but does not address the type of environment in which they lived. See the tip in the PE notes about using a second resource for that area.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Students are identifying patterns and how those patterns change as they observe the footprints and make hypotheses about what might have happened.

This resource was not designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
The short-lived interaction of two, different size dinosaurs millions of years ago can be hypothesized based on the size, orientation, and distance of tracks apart from one another. The first tracks show broad footprints from a Sauropod’s back feet, as well as narrower footprints made by its front feet. Scientists estimate that the dinosaur may have been 40 to 50 feet long and weighed 30 tons. A second set of tracks shows three-toed prints made by a smaller Theropod dinosaur. The Theropod, walking on hind legs, was perhaps 30 feet in length. These vastly different sized tracks allow students to infer that the fossilized tracks were made by two very different-sized dinosaurs.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: The students have to examine the fossil prints to try to understand what the two dinosaurs were doing at the time that the tracks were made. Since the three panels are revealed one at a time, the student has to revise their hypothesis as more information is gathered. This exercise teaches the students not only that they can use the fossils as a clue to the past, but that scientists can revise their hypotheses as more information is revealed to them. It also helps the students understand that not all scientists will agree, because the students will probably have different ideas about what was happening.

  • Instructional Supports: This activity provides a wonderful opportunity for students to construct a scientific explanation of a phenomenon. It is based on real life, and builds upon prior knowledge. Because this is an interpretation of a picture, students with limited English or lower level readers will be able to participate. The activity does not provide remediation or acceleration activities.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The teacher will be able to listen to the student groups at each stage of the activity, to see how they interpret the new data as it is presented. The students should be able to take in the size, distance apart, and disappearance of one set of footprints and use that information to guide their predictions about what happened in the scenario. The activity does not include a rubric for grading the scientific predictions that the student groups construct, although that would be very helpful when examining the predictions. Another possibility is have students study the footprints, and then ask them to make a claim, provide their evidence, and explain their reasoning.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: This activity does not use any technology, except to project the picture onto the screen at the front of the room.