Articles | Volume 17, issue 1
Research article
28 Mar 2014
Research article |  | 28 Mar 2014

Do tracks yield reliable information on gaits? – Part 1: The case of horses

K. Kienapfel, S. Läbe, and H. Preuschoft

Abstract. During their lifetime animals leave many tracks and traces behind, which can provide insights into the animals' behaviour. Single footprints of extant vertebrates are frequently found in sediments all over the world, often arranged into trackways. The study of footprints and trackways lead to interpretations about the mode of locomotion of the trackmaker. Here we show an approach to identify gaits from tracks.

A series of experiments with horses was performed to determine whether gaits could be identified on the basis of fossil trackways, e.g. those left behind by sauropod dinosaurs of the Mesozoic era or Tertiary mammals, to unveil their locomotor abilities. The generally valid rules for quadrupedal locomotion were taken into consideration. Symmetrical gaits result in very similar trackways; a further differentiation can be made by application of statistics on step lengths, excursion angles and overstepping.

A clear difference exists between the trot and the pace. These rapid, symmetric gaits imply high ground reaction forces (GRF) because of their long phases of aerial suspension at higher speeds. The resulting GRF seem to be too high to be sustained by the limb bones of huge graviportal animals like sauropods. Unfortunately, most of these factors are rarely available in the case of fossil tracks. Likewise, the asymmetrical, springing gaits can be excluded for sauropods because of the enormous GRF. Provided that limb length as well as trunk length can be approximated, and left and right, as well as forefoot and hindfoot imprints can be discriminated, the symmetrical gaits (walk, amble, pace, trot) used when making a trackway can be discerned.