Footprints in the Sand

Picture with me a group of small bi-pedal dinosaurs making their way across a patch of wet soil leaving behind their marks in the mud. These footprints hardened into rock, dinosaur trackways … history at our fingertips! Something only paleontologists experience, right?

This past September, my wife and I had the unique opportunity to see this firsthand; something we had never done before.

We were vacationing in the Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming area (a great region for seeing dinosaur fossils and trackways), so we decided to “track” down a dinosaur site and take a look for ourselves. We settled on a small park in the northeastern corner of Utah called Red Fleet Reservoir State Park.

It is a small park with some RV hookups and a lake for fishing. We arrived late in the afternoon at a sparsely populated campsite. A note on the window of the check-in station indicated the park ranger was “out of the park”. In the solitude of the moment, we were unaware of the little adventure we were about to partake in.

What are Trace Fossils?

Dinosaur tracks are actually classified as trace fossils because they are not the actual fossilized remains of the animal, but fossilized evidence that the animal once walked across a particular area of ground.

A photo of a trace fossil

A trace fossil.

Fossilized tracks are made when an animal walks across wet sand or soil, leaving a footprint impression in the soft sediment. Just as a footprint on the beach is washed away by the next wave from the ocean, something as simple as wind, rain, or successive foot traffic would quickly “erase” these footprints; however, when they are buried rapidly, before they erode, the process of preservation has begun.

Once the moisture dissipates, the sediment begins to harden into rock. The process that buries these footprints is similar to how fossils are formed. Through erosion, the footprints are then uncovered, waiting to be discovered by a paleontologist, a group of Boy Scouts, or a group of ATV riders.

Sedimentary Rock

Rock formed from accumulations of sediment, which may consist of rock fragments of various sizes, remains or products of animals or plants, products of chemical action or of evaporation, or mixtures of these. Stratification is single most characteristic feature of sedimentary rocks, which cover about 75 percent of land area.

Source: Leet, L. Don. 1982. Physical Geology, 6th Edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall

Today, we can examine the tracks to gain insight into the animal’s behavior, to identify if he moved alone or in a group, and to estimate the basic size of the animal by comparing the footprint to known fossils found in the region. Estimations can also be made as to how fast the animal may have been able to move by looking at his stride length.

Dinosaur trackways are also beneficial, because of the ability to study the animal in a dynamic manner as opposed to the static fossils.

A Hike to the Fossil Trackways

Our initial journey to the trackway site had to be rerouted because of our lack of transportation across the river. So, back into the truck we went, to find a way to the other side of the river. Upon reaching the trailhead, we discovered we had over a mile hike through sandy, rocky terrain, wind-twisted trees, and sage bushes.

With a somewhat haphazardly-marked path, our trek was mixed with caution (over getting lost in a place where no one would know to look for us!) and the excitement of being amateur explorers on this unique treasure hunt.

At trails’ end, we found ourselves standing at the top of a large, flat sedimentary rock bed jutting out of the water at an angle. The rock face resembled a boat-launch ramp and was about the size of two basketball floors.

Photo of rock profile

Profile of rock slab.

Having read these tracks would be best viewed early or late in the day (the angle of the sun would cast a shadow in the prints, making them easier to spot), we had tried to time our visit accordingly, and made our journey in the afternoon.

As we scanned the rock face for dinosaur tracks, nothing was obvious at first. Then, we noticed a small group of loose rocks laid in a circle by a previous visitor, identifying one of the footprints.

Now, knowing what to look for, the footprints began to “pop” out of the rock face. Everywhere we looked, we saw fossilized three-toed dinosaur footprints about 12 to 18 inches long.

Dinosaur footprint in sedimentary rock

Dinosaur footprint in sedimentary rock.

There appeared to be well over 50 tracks. Most of them were in the same direction and there seemed to be several animals of the same species in the group. Ever since I was a little boy, I have been fascinated with dinosaurs, and here we stood, standing upon the same ground where a now extinct dinosaur once walked. To be able to place our hands in the steps (literally) of history was exciting!

The setting sun reminded us we were pressed for time, and with a few more photographs, we began our hike back to the truck.

The information at the sight was very limited, so I did some research after returning home. I found that these trackways where thought to have been left by a bipedal dinosaur, something along the lines of a Coelphysis. This dinosaur was about 10 feet long from his nose to the tip of his tail and weighed between 50 and 75 pounds.

A Biblical Perspective

Since the discovery of dinosaurs in the early 1800’s, there has been a great deal of debate about these fascinating animals. What did they look like? Why did they die? When did they live?

For most people, dinosaurs are intriguing creatures that are products of unguided natural forces (evolution) dying out over 65 million years ago. According to paleontologists, footprints, like the ones pictured above, where supposed to have been laid down some 200 million years ago, but are dates like these reliable?

Footprints, like fossils, ultimately can only give us a limited amount of information. We observe them in the present; we can only speculate about their age when looking into the past. Also, we cannot know the exact circumstances surrounding the footprints.

Does a Biblical perspective give us any additional insight? We can reason that dinosaur trackways were laid down as a result of an animal walking over wet sand or soil. With the footprints needing to be covered over quickly by additional sediment in order to preserve the tracks, what mechanism or event is there in the Bible that would put all of these things together?

The Bible tells us of a great flood that occurred over 4,000 years ago, which covered the entire face of the earth. To be more specific, the Genesis flood, the single largest catastrophic event the world has ever known, gives us the range of circumstances needed to preserve these tracks until today.

“In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on the same day all the fountains of the great deep burst open, and the floodgates of the sky were opened.” (Ge 7:11 NAS95)

Here, in addition to rain falling from the heavens, the Bible depicts high-pressure water bursting through the earth’s crust. These events are the primary source of all of the geographic features we have on the earth’s surface today such as multiple rock layers, mountains and canyons.

As we can observe today, when rain falls, the ground becomes soft and wet. In Genesis 2:6, the Bible indicates a mist watered the earth. We are not given an account of rain until the flood; therefore, it is possible animals and mankind had never seen this form of precipitation before. With the onslaught of this deluge, we are not simply looking at a thunderstorm; the catastrophic nature of the Genesis flood would have caused a great deal of activity and likely panic from all of the animals. With the rapid upheaval of sediment driven by the force of water bursting through the earth’s crust would give us the rapid burial needed to preserve the footprints.

Once the flooding stopped and the waters began to recede, the drying out process would have begun. The pressure of the overlaid sediment (see sedimentary rock insert above) would enable the once soft sand or soil to harden and turn to the sedimentary rock we have today. Through erosion, the overlaid sediment will wear away, until we get back down to the surface in which the footprints where originally laid down.

If you will look at things like these footprints from a Biblical perspective first, I believe you will find the answers emerge and will actually strengthen your faith in the God of all creation.

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