UNLV Researchers Enlisted To Study Prehistoric Tracks Found In Grand Canyon


AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File

In this Oct. 5, 2013, file photo, the Grand Canyon National Park is covered in the morning sunlight as seen from a helicopter near Tusayan, Ariz.

It’s time for a dinosaur update. 

A few years ago, UNLV researchers were tasked with trying to figure out what kind of prehistoric animal made tracks that were fossilized in the area of Gold Butte National Monument. 

Now another set of tracks, possibly the oldest found in the United States, have been found in the Grand Canyon and UNLV is on the case once again. 

Steve Rowland is a paleontologist and a geology professor at UNLV. He and his team are studying the mysterious footprints. 

“What has been found is a set of fossil footprints in the Grand Canyon that are clearly the oldest footprints ever found in the Grand Canyon, which is actually quite famous for its footprints,” he said.

Rowland said people familiar with fossilized tracks in the canyon will know about the Coconino Sandstone formation but the tracks he is studying are actually older than those tracks.

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“They came from a much, much older formation called the Manacacha Formation, which is 40-50 million years older than these younger tracks in the Coconino's,” he said.

Rowland said the Manacacha Formation is not known as a place where lots of fossils around found, which is one of the reasons the find is so surprising.

“They occur at just the dawn of reptilian evolution," he said, "Reptiles were just beginning to appear on earth at the time that these tracks were made.”

Where they were found is not the only surprising part of the story, how they were found is also unusual. Rowland said they were discovered along the very popular Bright Angel hiking trail.

Sometime around the end of 2015 or the beginning for 2016, a small rock fall happened along the trail. The trail crew cleared away the rocks but the foreman noticed the tracks on a rock and turned it towards the trail so people could see them.

Then, a colleague of Rowland's noticed the formations while hiking with a group of students. He knew they were the type of tracks Rowland would be interested in and alerted him to where they were.

Now, Rowland and his team are taking detailed photos and measurements then using computer analysis to find out what they can about how the animal that made them lived.

Fossils like bones and teeth can give scientists an idea of what an animal looked like, but Rowland said tracks and burrows give researchers an idea of how an animal actually lived and the environment they lived in.

For example, the animal that left the track he is studying now may have been trying to climb up the slope of a sand dune because the tracks were made at a strange sideways gait that animals do not usually use.

“It will certainly allow us to flesh out the history of reptiles,” Rowland said of these tracks and others found around the Southwest.

Nevada doesn't have a plethora of dinosaur fossils because it was a mountainous region when the dinosaurs ruled the earth but Rowland said it has a diverse fossil record for all kinds of animals before and after dinosaurs.

The newly discovered tracks could also lead to more tracks and fossils in the area.

“When you find something like this, the tendency is: 'Okay, let’s see if we can find some more,'” Rowland said.

Those discoveries could come as soon as next year. Rowland is partnering with the Park Service to do a paleo inventory of Grand Canyon National Park for it's 100th anniversary in 2019.


Steve Rowland, paleontologist and a geology professor, UNLV

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