A paleontologist has discovered 28 ancient footprints in the Grand Canyon that have remained hidden for 310 million years, making them the oldest footprints that have ever been discovered here. The creature that left behind the footprints has been described as being reptilian, and there may be a link between these footprints and similar ones that were left in Scotland 299 million years ago. However, if it is later discovered that the reptile is indeed of the same variety, the Grand Canyon footprints will have preceded the ones in Scotland by 10 million years.
As the Smithsonian reports, the footprints in the Grand Canyon were initially discovered in 2016 when a paleontologist was taking a group of students for a walk along the Bright Angel Trail.
After the lizard-like creature scuttled away, its footprints would have been frozen in time as they turned into sandstone, and because its tracks were initially obscured as they were trapped inside a quartz boulder, they have remained hidden for hundreds of millions of years. However, when this boulder eventually fell and shattered along the trail, the paleontologist and his students quickly spotted it.
One strange feature about the footprints that were left behind in the Grand Canyon is the fact that they had a diagonal gait to them. According to paleontologist Stephen Rowland, an effect was therefore created which made the imprints look like the reptile was taking side-steps while walking.
“Even if it was an ordinary trackway, it would be unusual. But in this case, it’s doing a funny little side-walking step, line-dance kind of thing, which is weird.”
Some 310 million years ago, a reptile-like creature with an unusual gait roamed the sandy expanses of the Grand Canyon, leaving a trail of 28 footprints that can still be seen today. https://t.co/KkPusitJ3D
— Smithsonian Magazine (@SmithsonianMag) October 27, 2018
There are some different why the 310-million-year-old footprints in the Grand Canyon may look as they do, and it has been suggested that there may have been an intense wind blowing which caused the animal to press toward the right as it tried its hardest to amble forward. Another explanation is that the surface may have been slippery and the animal could have intentionally walked with an angle to keep itself upright.
Even though it is currently unclear what species this animal was, researchers have “tentatively” called it a “basal tetrapod of unknown taxonomic affinity,” and given it the classification of Chelichnus, which is also what the tracks in Scotland were classified as.
Patrick J. McKeever and Harmut Haubold, the researchers behind a 1996 study of the Chelichnus, note that “trackways that represent variations by the same trackmaker due to gait or substrate have been assigned different names. This practice has led to widespread confusion in the area of Permian vertebrate ichnology.”
Rowland explained that even though it may be helpful to find bones and teeth, researchers have lucked out this time as they have caught a glimpse of an animal’s behavior through its walking.
“With a skeleton with bones and teeth, you get lots of good information, but you don’t actually see behavior. We’ve captured this animal walking.”
With so much excitement over the oldest footprints ever found in the Grand Canyon, further research will be conducted to determine whether the 310-million-year-old footprints are related to the discovery of similar footprints in Scotland.