The feet of ground-dwelling birds retain many features of their dinosaurian ancestry. Experiments with living species offer insights into the complex interplay among anatomy, kinematics and substrate during the formation of Mesozoic footprints. However, a key aspect of the track-making process, sub-surface foot movement, is hindered by substrate opacity. Here, we use biplanar X-rays to image guineafowl walking through radiolucent substrates of different consistency (solid, dry granular, firm to semi-liquid muds). Despite substantial kinematic variation, the foot consistently moves in a looping pattern below ground. As the foot sinks and then withdraws, the claws of the three main toes create entry and exit paths in different locations. Sampling these paths at incremental horizons captures two-dimensional features just as fossil tracks do, allowing depth-based zones to be characterized by the presence and relative position of digit impressions. Examination of deep, penetrative tracks from the Early Jurassic confirms that bipeds had an equivalent looping response to soft substrates approximately 200 Ma. Our integration of extant and extinct evidence demonstrates the influence of substrate properties on sinking depth and sub-surface foot motion, both of which are significant sources of track variation in the fossil record of dinosaurs.
Keywords: XROMM; footprint; guineafowl; kinematics; substrate; tridactyl.