During the Jurassic period, sea covered much of what is now France. One of its shorelines was at Crayssac in the Lot, near Cahors.
There was a tropical climate and the Earth was teeming with life, not just huge dinosaurs but also smaller reptiles including the flight-capable ‘winged lizard’ pterosaur. For the past 20 years palaeontologists have been revealing and studying thousands of their fossilised footprints captured in those muddy shores millions of years ago on what has been named the Plage aux Ptérosaures at Crayssac.
The site, which has neither sand nor sea now, has recently been opened to the public for guided tours.
Palaeontologist Jean-Michel Mazin whose interest in the subject means he continues to lead the research team despite being retired said: “It is a site of international importance because it shows how these creatures moved around and gives us a window on to their world.
“For the first time we have understood that the pterosaurs did not move on land like a bird, on two feet, but also used the tips of their wings and so walked with four limbs touching the ground.” The biggest of them reached 10 or 12m, but the ones at Crayssac were similar to birds of today, from the size of a sparrow to that of a seagull. They shared the beach with crocodiles, turtles and small dinosaurs.
Alexandre Itier, who manages the site, says it is a dream come true to work there: “There are thousands of footprints and we have discovered 40 different species.
“The longest track is 20m long where a dinosaur was walking along the edge of the water.
“We have found traces showing pterosaurs coming into land and even raindrops next to footprints showing that the animals were out in all weathers. There is a layer 1.2 metres thick which covers around 10 hectares, so you can imagine all that there is to discover.”
Mr Mazin says they have more than a century of work ahead: “We are keen to share our findings with the public. It is important that it becomes a tourist site because if a wide part of the population is interested in what we are doing, it will show politicians it is worth continuing our work and they will continue funding us.”
The region has long been a well-known area for fossil hunters, and the first footprints were found in, what was, a privately owned quarry 20 years ago by an amateur who alerted the professionals. Virginie Seguin from Cahors Tourist Office says visitors come away amazed by what they see: “The visit takes place in the dark with spotlights used to show up the footprints.
“Like most people when I first went I thought there was nothing much to see. Gradually, however, this whole world is revealed and the guides are real palaeontologists who are passionate about their work and explain the importance of what they are doing.”
Plage aux Ptérosaures is open until November 4. Paying guided tours only (adults €8). Tel: 05 65 23 32 48. Visits last 90 minutes. In July and August there are tours in English.