Show Me the Footmarks, Watson

At right is a left front foot followed by the hind foot of the mysterious Chirotherium, or "hand beast." The tracks were first found in the German town of Hildburghausen. (Hans-Dieter Sues)

The Long, Strange Tale of the Hand Beast Footprints

by Hans-Dieter Sues

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, the legendary sleuth Sherlock Holmes observes: “There is no branch of detective science which is so important and so much neglected as the art of tracing footsteps. Happily, I have laid great stress upon it, and much practice has made it second nature to me.”

Holmes is able to distinguish the separate tracks of two men from the many footmarks of the constables on the scene. He can calculate when the men arrived, and by the length of their stride, can determine their height. He also determines that one man is fashionably dressed “from the small and elegant impression left by his boots.”

Countless crime scene investigators have used footprints to apprehend culprits, but footprints are also a valuable resource for studying ancient animals. In many rock formations, tracks are the only remaining record that paleontologists can find of animals that lived millions of years ago.

We can identify the creatures who made fossil footprints if the imprints are well-preserved. The details in these will often reveal the configuration of the bones in the hands or feet and even show traces of skin on the palms and soles.

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