A Collapsed Cliff Has Revealed 313 Million-Yr-Previous Fossil Footprints in The Grand Canyon

An opportunity discovery throughout a hike in Grand Canyon Nationwide Park in 2016 ended up revealing unusual footprints left by one thing that additionally walked there as soon as, lengthy, way back.

So way back, in actual fact, that these historic tracks – left roughly 313 million years in the past – symbolize the earliest footprints ever discovered on this epic, wondrous atmosphere, in keeping with a brand new research.


“These are by far the oldest vertebrate tracks in Grand Canyon, which is understood for its ample fossil tracks,” says palaeontologist Stephen Rowland from the College of Nevada Las Vegas.

“Extra considerably, they’re among the many oldest tracks on Earth of shelled-egg-laying animals, resembling reptiles, and the earliest proof of vertebrate animals strolling in sand dunes.”

Artist’s impression. (Emily Waldman)

Not dangerous for a fortunate discover on a mountain climbing path. However the circumstances behind the invention, made on a path known as Vivid Angel Path, are much more serendipitous than they appear.

The fossil footprints in query have been discovered on the aspect of a boulder that fell off a close-by cliff, exposing a stratigraphic cross part of the Manakacha Formation: a layer of historic rock laid down roughly 315 million years in the past.

In different phrases, if the cliff had by no means collapsed, the boulder would by no means have been encountered by hikers on the trial, and the traditional marks could have escaped discover for eternity.

Thanks to those probability occasions, nevertheless, researchers have now had the chance to analyse these very previous trackways, and study a bit about what sort of animal left them, again when this rocky floor was the slope of a sand dune.

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Throughout the dune, two separate tracks might be seen, left by basal amniotes – very early specimens of tetrapod (four-limbed) vertebrates, and on this case, presumably from the bottom of the reptile evolutionary tree.

The primary set of tracks reveal a particular, sideways-drifting sample of footprints, interpreted because the trackmaker using what’s known as a lateral-sequence gait, whereas diagonally ascending the dune slope.

In this type of motion, the legs on one aspect of the animal transfer in succession earlier than the legs on the opposite aspect do the identical (left rear leg, left fore leg, proper rear leg, proper fore leg).

010 ancient canyon tracks 3Lateral-sequence gait. (Rowland et al., PLOS ONE, 2020)

“Residing species of tetrapods – canine and cats, for instance – routinely use a lateral-sequence gait once they stroll slowly,” says Rowland.

“The Vivid Angel Path tracks doc the usage of this gait very early within the historical past of vertebrate animals. We beforehand had no details about that.”

Whether or not the gait was because of the steepness of the slope or the power of the wind is unclear, however the tracks, that are additionally the primary tetrapod marks ever discovered within the Manakacha Formation, reveal that basal amniotes dwelled in sand dune areas even on this historic period.


The second group of tracks are completely different, representing a later set of claw marks that recommend the animal (presumably the identical species) was straight transferring up the slope, fairly than the diagonal ascent, sideways ascent of the primary animal.

Whereas it is unattainable proper now to find out precisely what sort of animal this was, the researchers say the marks bear a passing resemblance to Chelichnus – an ambiguous and debated set of fossil tracks present in Scotland, courting to the Permian interval, and first mistaken for tortoise tracks.

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Outdoors of those marks, it is attainable this historic species that when strode by means of the Grand Canyon, has by no means been found or detected within the fossil file.

“It completely could possibly be that whoever was the trackmaker, his or her bones have by no means been recorded,” Rowland stated in 2018.

The findings are reported in PLOS ONE.


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