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PALEO HAPPENINGS December 2020

The Joy of Tracking – Destination Moabby Martin Lockley, Moab Giants

A youngster sitting in a sauropod track at the Copper Ridge site may represenst a future generation of dinosaur trackers.

The sages say that satisfaction and meaning are found not in the destination, but in the journey. For the paleontological tracker, the Moab area is the gift that keeps on giving. When I first came to Moab in the early 1980s only a few local residents, like Fran Barnes and Rock Shop owner Lyn Ottinger, were even aware of fossil footprints in the area. Only one Utah paleontologist had written anything substantive about the local tracks. By the late 1980s our tracker’s research group had developed a fruitful relationship with Fran Barnes, who like us, was keen to document the area’s treasure trove of fossil footprints. Like the tip of an iceberg, we had found the peak of a geological sequence of strata that would help tell the story of vertebrate evolution spanning some 300million, deep time, years of life on land.

Today in 2020, more than 100 fossil footprint sites are documented from the southern sector of the Dinosaur Diamond. The greater Dinosaur Diamond area easily doubles this number. It is not just professional paleontologist trackers we have to thank, but also local residents like Fran Barnes who recognized the abundance of tracks and wrote two short books on the subject. Local land management agencies (BLM and USDA Forest Service) recognized the value of interpreting sites as tourist destinations, and Moab Giants museum was established with a dinosaur tracks theme. Aside from our research group and former students, we have many enthusiastic friends in the Moab area who have found important new sites. Moab Happenings has published this series of 12 articles on tracks. On that note, the series has followed the “trail through time” theme from before the age of dinosaurs to when our early ancestors first set foot in North America. We call this “The Eternal Trail” where one finds not only the tracks of many dinosaur groups, but also those of other reptiles, pterosaurs, birds and mammals. We have learned that surfaces like the Moab megatracksite are where large carnivores and pterosaurs tracks roamed miles of ancient beach beside a shallow sea. Elsewhere nest scrape marks give insight into the sex lives of dinosaurs.

A motley crew of masked dinosaur trackers, mostly Moab residents, display recent dinosaur track finds in the Moab Giants courtyard. Our efforts to find and document tracks have been facilitated by various organizations including the Bureau of Land Management, Moab Giants, the Museum of Moab, the Museum of Western Colorado, the University of Colorado and the Utah Friends of Paleontology. Finding and documenting fossil footprints is a community effort with long term benefits to science, education and tourism. We thank all involved, including our friends at Moab Happenings for their support and help. Our motto and plan for 2021 is “keep on trackin’.

We end this series with a famous quote: “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” After decades of tracking around Moab we know the eternal trail never ends. As professional trackers our annual federal and state reports document new discoveries, and translate into dozens of scientific papers every year. No sooner does this year end than new finds set the agenda for the next. Each year is a small step on the eternal, million-year trail. Each new documented site represents a new page in the trackers paleontological archive, and new entries in various museum catalogs, some listing thousands of tracks. It is how we preserve our fossil footprint heritage for posterity. Dinosaurs knew no geographical state and county boundaries of the type we humans create. Natures’ geological forces have blessed different areas with different fossils. So, tracks are particularly abundant along today’s Colorado Front Range and the western slope. In Utah, the most abundant treasures are found in the Moab area, but also throughout the Dinosaur Diamond, in southwest Utah and the Lake Powell area. The ancient track record keeps on giving: a local resident reported a new tracksite just this last month (Nov 2020). The trove of treasures we expect to find in 2021 will likely match those found in 2020. The past will continue to yield scientific treasures for our future education and enjoyment.

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