Dinosaur Tracks at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Deemed "Important Discovery"

Dinosaur trackway at Glen Canyon.

This dinosaur trackway is preserved in a block of Navajo Sandstone at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The tracks are visible in the rock behind the scientist in the photo. NPS photo

"Jurassic" isn't just a name from a movie, it's also a term for geologic formations known to contain evidence of dinosaurs. The discovery of a new site with dinosaur tracks at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is being described by scientists as "remarkable," and "an important discovery."

The new track site was documented by a team of paleontologists and volunteers working with the National Park Service to establish a pilot paleontological resource monitoring program. Glen Canyon was selected as the prototype park for implementing new strategies for monitoring in situ paleontological resources. A partnership with the Utah Geological Survey was formed in 2009 to initiate paleontological resource monitoring in NPS areas within Utah.

Scientists say the recently discovered site will

shed new light on the history of an important dinosaur group. The fossil track way, consisting of seven individual three-toed tracks, is morphologically similar to track ways associated with the dinosaurs known as ornithopods (bird feet).

The large ornithopod-like footprints are preserved as natural casts in the Lower Jurassic Navajo Sandstone. The size of these tracks is significant – prior to the discovery of this locality, the oldest remains of large ornithopods in North America are known from Upper Jurassic rocks (Camptosaurus). The new Glen Canyon track locality may extend the ornithopod dinosaur record in North America back 20 to 25 million years earlier than previously documented.

According to paleontologist Adrian Hunt, former director of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History,

“the Navajo Formation find is very important not just for ichnology [study of fossil tracks], but also for the dinosaur record. Tracks from large bipedal dinosaurs from this time period are unknown and this discovery suggests the existence of the ornithopod lineage of dinosaurs much earlier than previously thought”.

Utah state paleontologist Jim Kirkland offers his perspective about the new tracks from Glen Canyon:

“Staring at my photographs of this remarkable track way, I'm struck by the great improbability that these tracks represent such a departure from our current knowledge of the temporal distribution of large ornithopods. The absence of Middle Jurassic dinosaur bones in North America suggests that these animals may have been restricted to the ancient deserts of the American southwest before their first skeletal records appear in the Upper Jurassic of North America and Europe.”

The discovery at Glen Canyon is the a result of the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act of 2009, which directs the National Park Service to develop a comprehensive strategy to inventory and monitor non-renewable paleontological resources. Baseline paleontological resource inventories conducted throughout the agency have thus far identified at least 219 park units which preserve fossils. One goal of this program is to improve management and protection of park fossils by determining where they are located and by identifying the threats to their stability and sustainability in those locations.

Contrary to a tongue-in-cheek comment by one person who saw the photo accompanying this article, the presence of the tracks on a large section of vertical rock do not indicate that dinosaurs are related to Spider Man. It is presumed that the rock has been tilted from its original position during the considerable period of time since the tracks were formed.