Moab will have yet another dinosaur attraction coming this fall. More than 200 reptilian footprints scattered over an area less than a football field have been uncovered after a resident discovered a few tracks while hiking. Dinosaur tracks are known from dozens of locations in this area but this site is unusual because of the abundance and preservation quality of the tracks. Best of all the diversity of dinosaurs and other reptiles here is quite stunning and paints a picture of a complex ecology that existed at the time these tracks were made. At least 10 species of dinosaurs including carnivores and herbivores, possibly a couple primitive birds and a footprint and tail-print of an ancient massive crocodile have already been identified at this site. A new trail and possible boardwalk over the trackway site is planned for the public later this year.
While the specific location has yet to be revealed I would not be surprised if this site is within the general vicinity of the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail which is also north of Moab. Last year I wrote about and posted pictures I took when my family hiked that trail (A Tour of the Dinosaur Trail of Mill Canyon, Moab UT). At Mill Canyon hundreds of dinosaurs bones can be seen in a gravel matrix of a preserved stream bed.
These newly discovered footprints are found on flat layered rocks of hard mudstones formed from sediments likely laid down in a shallow lake. The characteristics of the rock and the prints suggests a receding lake edge leaving a mudflat that was visited by many dinosaurs living in the area over a period of days or weeks. Primitive birds waded in shallow water on the shore while crocodiles lay in the shallow waters. One scenario for the preservation of footprints is that the mud impressions made by the feet of dinosaurs dried out and hardened. Soon afterward the lake filled rapidly as a result of a large storm in the area causing silt-laden water to cover the footprints filling them with sand eventually covering the whole area with a new layer of sediments that in turn was converted to stone. Much later this overlying rock eroded leaving these prints to be discovered only a few years ago.
All of the footprints here belong to members of extinct reptiles. Although no bones are found here, bones of most of these animals are found preserved in rocks of similar age in the area. There are no mammal footprints nor are there any mammalian bones found in the rocks in the Moab region. This is not surprising since the rocks here are of similar age to those found in England that led geologists in the early 1800s to propose a period in earth’s history called the age of the reptiles (see – Mary Anning: Plesiosaurs, Pterosaurs and the Age of the Reptiles). Like in England, an entire biotic community consisting only of reptiles and other simpler vertebrate and invertebrate animals.
An Alternative Scenario?
I just painted a scene from around 110 million years ago to explain the origins of these tracks. As you might expect this scenario clashes dramatically with the picture that 6-day creationists have drawn to explain how millions of footprints could have been formed in rocks that they believe are only 4500 years old. If you have read any of my other articles on fossil footprints (eg. Fossil Eggs, Nests, Floods and Pregnant Stressed Dinosaurs or Exceptional Dinosaur Trackway in Denali National Park Reveals Herd of Hadrosaurs) I am probably starting to sound like an overplayed record. But I find these sites fascinating and have come to realize that so few Christians are unaware how common they are. They are no small problem for a young earth. Only when the magnitude of the problem becomes apparent does the young earth scenario become patently absurd.
My young earth creationists’ (YEC) friends would doubtless say that the picture I presented above regarding the origin of the footprints is highly speculative. After all, was I there to see this series of historical events happen they may ask. I was not. However the existence of the footprints is an undisputed fact and the interpretation that multiple different large animals made them is beyond reasonable doubt. Even YECs accept that these impressions are footprints and were formed by dinosaurs despite the fact they were not there to see their formation. In other words, they unreservedly accept these conclusion of what is often called historical science.
The question isn’t one of the existence of dinosaurs or that they made footprints at this exact place but the question is when? Was it 110 million years ago during a time when this region was dotted by shallow lakes and streams or 4500 years ago during a chaotic global flood event in which dinosaurs clamored up the sides of newly formed mounds of sediments to escape the ever-rising flood waters? Are we forced to guess between these explanations because we weren’t there to observe which represents the real history?
Definitely not! We can use a wide set of tools to determine the sequence of past events with great confidence. For example, we have already determined that dinosaurs walked in this very spot with enough confidence that creationists can accept this as a fact of history without any human eyewitness or a single biblical verse attesting to their existence. The rocks don’t lie. They tell the story of what happened. They don’t just show us the footprints. They also reveal the physical environment in which the mud was formed. They reveal additional fossils that support our claims about the types of fossils that made the prints. It is no mere conjecture what the land looked like and what animals and plants lived there at the time these tracks were made.
Contrast the considerable data from multiple sources that point to an ancient landscape dotted with lakes, rivers, dinosaurs and other reptiles to the scenario imagined by young earth creationists. The image to the right portrays their general hypothesis for trace fossils in the geological column. It goes something like this: after the onset of a catastrophic flood and after 10s of thousands of feet of sediments had already been deposited in a few short weeks or months, dinosaurs that had managed to survive this cataclysm drug themselves up on top of mounds of fresh sediments. Congregating in high places – I am unclear how these high places were formed or where the dinosaurs were while these places formed – they made tracks in fresh mud only to find that the flood waters rose once again to cover them over. The dinosaurs all died, except representatives on the ark, but their tracks – and nests, and feces – were preserved. The flood waters then continued to deposit thousands of new layers of sediments on top of these sediments. Most of that sediment was then washed away as the flood waters retreated leaving the canyons and valleys we see today in Utah.
In some very general sense it is possible that a non-scientists might find the above scenario plausible. But it becomes nothing short of nonsense when the general theory is applied to specific examples. I have examined some of those examples in past articles. This new trackway is just one of hundreds of examples of footprints and other trace fossils of past life that are well explained within the context of past ages of Earth’s history in which well developed communities of organisms lived out their lives sometime leaving traces of their existence during normal everyday activities. The YEC model produces no additional explanatory power but rather only produces a myriad of ad-hoc explanations heaped one upon another.
A Footnote to these Dinosaur Footprints
When we visited Moab last year we stopped along the Colorado river to view a block of rock with several dinosaur footprints. These prints along with many others in the Moab are an example of trace fossils found in multiple layers of sandstone rock formations some of which are stacked on top of each other. These are a strong testimony to an ancient earth.
Above is a picture I took of a slab of rock has fallen from its source more than 50 feet above. There are footprints of at least two different dinosaurs preserved here. Below is a picture from the parking lot showing the extent of the rock formation. The rock with the prints comes from near the base of the cliff. In the YEC flood view these prints are found embedded in rock in the middle of flood deposited sediments. It is places like this that have forced YECs to propose their theory of dinosaurs finding refuge on exposed mudflats during massive successive tsunamis sweeping the globe.