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In 1999, during a search by helicopter following a request for change to the use of a quarry near Altamura, some geologists recognised a strange alignment of holes on the surface of the limestone. Returning to the site, they found themselves before an area six times bigger than a football field, upon which were imprinted tens of thousands of dinosaur footprints.

In this way, one of the most extensive sites of such footprints in Europe was discovered. It opened the way to a completely new interpretation of the geological history of Puglia as not being completely covered by the sea during the Cretaceous era, as hitherto believed. The discovery of dinosaur tracks on that ancient surface was only the first of a long series of discoveries. Today, between sites and isolated blocks, some 30 sets of footprints have been found in Puglia, at a rate on average of one a year. This poses the problems of the conservation and valorization of a paleontological heritage of international importance, with great potential to explain paleontology to the general public.

Geology of the limestone of Altamura

The limestone of the Cretaceous era, on which the city of Altamura stands, belong to the limestone Formation of Altamura, a geological succession which can be dated to the end of the Cretaceous (Turonian-Maastrichtian, 65-88 million years ago). The limestone outcrops in the Pontrelli quarry are subhorizontal and laterally discontinuous, with frequent marly layers, red in colour, and with dried mud-cracks typical of an environment near the coast which was subject to periodic submersion by the sea. The EcoSPI quarry in the Pontrelli area, today renamed the "Valley of the Dinosaurs", is just one of about 180 recorded around the city, and more discoveries are expected from future exploration. There have been four discoveries of dinosaur footprints around Altamura since that first discovery in 1999. The geosite of the Lamalunga cave, with Quaternary fauna and remains of a Neanderthal man, make the area of Altamura unique.

Dinosaur footprints

There are an estimated 30,000 footprints in the Pontrelli quarry. In most cases the sides of each one had collapsed inwards because the the poor consistency of the mud. The deeper and more rounded footprints are those which preserve most faithfully the original form of the foot. Yet the impressive dimensions of the trodden surface, about four hectares, has enabled well-preserved footprints to be found, despite their general rarity. The makers of the footprints (trackmakers) have been identified as coming mostly from the group of thyreophora, armoured dinosaurs similar to ankylosaurus. Less numerous are the footprints of sauropods, small to medium sized carnivorous animals with a long neck, and there are also a few traces possibly attributable to duck-beaked dinosaurs. Most footprints of Altamura and other sites in Puglia are of relatively small dimensions, perhaps indicating that insularity was a common phenomenon amongst the dinosaurs of Puglia.

Phases of study

The study undertaken by paleontologists from the University of Rome "La Sapienza" has allowed a first dating of the succession, and the description of Apulosaurypus federicianus. New sites were discovered in later years by researchers from the University of Bari, authors of a taphonomic study, and of a new dating of the fossil strata attributed to the Upper Santonian era (80 million years ago). A new photogrammeteric survey of the Pontrelli quarry area has been undertaken by the archaeologists from the University of Bologna. Some prints found in an erratic block and the holotype of Apulosaurypus federicianus have been studied with a 3D laser scanner. The Archaeological Sovrintendenza of Puglia has recently signed an agreement with the Department of Earth and Geo-environmental Sciences of the University of Bari in order to render the area accessible, but also ensure its preservation.

Further reading

Andreassi G., Claps M., Sarti M., Nicosia U. & Venturo D. (1999) – The late Cretaceous Dinosaur tracksite near Altamura (Bari), Southern Italy. Atti Convegno FIST, 20-23 settembre 1999, Bellaria, p. 28.

Iannone A. (2003). Facies analysis of Upper Cretaceous peritidal limestones characterized by the presence of dinosaur tracks (Altamura, Southern Italy). Memorie di ScienzeGeologiche, 55: 1–121.

Nicosia U., Marino M., Mariotti N., Muraro C., Panigutti S., Petti F.M. & Sacchi E. (2000). The Late Cretaceous dinosaur tracksite near Altamura (Bari, southern Italy). I Geological framework. Geologica Romana 35: 231-236.

Nicosia U., Marino M., Mariotti N., Muraro C., Panigotti S., Petti F. M. & Sacchi E. (2000). The late Cretaceous dinosaur tracksite near Altamura (Bari, Southern Italy): II Apulosauripus federicianus, new ichnogenus and new ichnospecies. Geologica Romana 35: 237-247.

Petruzzelli M., Iannone A. & La Perna R. (2011). Le tracce di dinosauro in Puglia: un’emergenza geo-paleontologica. In: Criticità geologiche del territorio pugliese: metodi di studio ed esempi. Giornata di Studi, 22 giugno 2011, Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra e Geoambientali, Bari.

Petruzzelli M., Lomurno F. & La Perna R. (2012). Experimentation of multivariate shape analysis on apulian dinosaur footprints. Giornate di Paleontologia XII edizione, Catania, 24-26 Maggio 2012. Abstracts: 58.

On the web

TG1 online

Visit of 1 November 1999, Pt. 1
Visit of 1 November 1999, Pt. 2
Visit of 1 November 1999, Pt. 3

Text and photographs by Marco Petruzzelli

(partially in English)