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Abstract

The footprints called ‘Chirotherium’, because of their resemblance to human hands, were found in Triassic sandstones from Germany in 1834 and Cheshire in 1838. As no bones or other fossil remains were found at either locality, the trackmaker's identity was a mystery. Marsupial mammals were first suggested but in 1842 Richard Owen confidently identified the prints as those of labyrinthodont amphibians. Later discoveries in Cheshire and elsewhere indicated that the trackmakers were more likely to have been pseudosuchian reptiles. In 1965 strong confirmation of this view came from the discovery in Switzerland of the skeleton of Ticinosuchus ferox.

The absence of fossil remains associated with the footprints has always been ascribed to the arid climate of Triassic times – a view reinforced by Henry Charles Beasley in 1907. A more moderate viewpoint was put forward by George Highfield Morton in 1898, who took note of the traces of flora found in the local Triassic strata. Pictorial representations of the Anisian through the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries indicate varying interpretations of the degree of aridity from sparsely vegetated landscapes to sand sea desert. Recent work shows that the environment in a local context was more richly vegetated and humid than had previously been supposed and that the historical interpretation of aridity has probably been overstated. A modern context may, perhaps, be seen in the river valleys of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Here, permanent fertile fluvial systems support a mixed indigenous flora of giant horsetails and conifers. The flora displays an adaptation to high groundwater salinity, which may have lessons in interpretation of the Anisian environment.

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