UNLV professor researching 310 million-year-old footprints discovered in the Grand Canyon

Dr. Rowland sketching 310 million-year-old reptile prints found in the Grand Canyon. The oldest ever discovered in the park. (Heather Mills | KSNV)

Fossilized reptile prints older than any dinosaur were recently discovered in the Grand Canyon.

They're the oldest prints ever found in the park.

"It predates dinosaurs by 100 million years or so," said Dr. Steve Rowland, a geology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who specializes in paleontology.

It was along the Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon, a few miles from the South Rim, that his colleague and friend made the extraordinary discovery: just 28 tiny tracks 310 million years old.

Rowland was soon able to see them himself.

"I think 310 million years ago there was this moist sand that formed a crust. The animal walked across it, dry sand blew in across and covered it up, and 310 million years late, when this rock fell off a cliff on the Bright Angel trail, it cracked open right along that crust," Rowland said.

Studying fossilized prints "tells us something about the behavior of the animal," he said.

Rowland thinks the unusual gait of the reptile could have been caused by several things.

"My first thought was that there was this really strong wind. This animal was going one direction, but there was a strong wind pushing it in the other direction," he explained.

Another option is that a creature was in the middle of a mating or territorial ritual.

What's unique is that none of the footprints overlap.

Rowland color-coded the prints.

"Each foot, a different color. Green, red, yellow, blue," he explained.

The colors give him a better glimpse of the reptile's movement.

"They're very narrow digits, probably claws," he said.

As for it's size, Dr. Rowland says it was about 18 inches or so, about the size of a small alligator.

He said he's still looking at global records of reptiles to compare, but said the significance of this finding is anything but small.

"I'm thinking it's among the earliest reptile tracks in the world," he said.

Dr. Rowland said he'll keep researching and comparing his findings with others around the world.

He then plans to publish the information in a peer-reviewed journal.

He said at that point he hopes he can show the National Park its significance, and he hopes to get the prints into a museum.

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