A Fossil Paradox? Footprints are Rarely Preserved in Stone and yet are very Common

Billions of footprints are preserved in the rock record.  While bones get all the attention, fossil footprints, a type of ichnofossils outnumber bones. How can we make sense of this observation?  Surely, preserving a bone must be far more likely than preserving a footprint?

I have written about how paleontologists use information from footprints and bones to reconstruct past environments and I have also written about individual dinosaur track-ways (Walking the Footprints of Giants).  Today, and in the follow-up post, I want to take a closer look at fossil footprints and ask the following questions:  1) Should we expect to find billions of preserved footprints in the fossil record? and 2) does conventional geology or Flood geology (young-earth creationism) provide a better framework for understanding footprint formation and distribution?

Below is a YouTube video for which this blog post is the script

Footprint preservation happens today!

I recently spent time in Death Valley National Park.  Early one morning walking among sand dunes below sea level my father noticed several bootprints in hardened ground swept clean of sand by recent high winds.  Although we were not present when these prints were created it is reasonable to infer that these were made by a shoe much like the one I am wearing in the picture pressing into wet soil.

A footprint preserved in hardened sand below sea level in Death Valley National Park. My shoe for scale. Photo: Joel Duff

But when was this bootprint created?  Days, weeks, months or years ago? It hadn’t rained here in a couple of weeks so these prints were at least that old.  Even if it had rained, this ground was very hard and the prints could well have survived multiple small rain events.  Furthermore, small sand dunes in this area are always moving around. These prints were probably covered in the sand dune just a few yards away not long ago. It is possible that the prints had been covered by a dune for months or years before only recently being re-exposed.

Several footprints (blue circles) preserved in hardened fine sand. The sand dunes in the upper portion of this photo are moving away from the footsteps and therefore were likely covering them days or weeks before. Photo: Joel Duff

Regardless of their exact age, the point is that footprints can be preserved over long periods of time.   The bottom of Death Valley is accumulating sand and sediments from the surrounding mountains.  There are surely preserved footprints of Native Americans and tourists who have visited this region for thousands of years lying under layers of sand and other sediments.  Sand may blow over a set of hardened tracks or a large flash flood may bring a layer of mud and stones over a trackway.  Over time these preserved tracks will become more deeply buried and eventually the sediments in those layers will become cemented together to form sandstones and conglomerates.  In the future, if the region if uplifted and that rock eroded, the footprints will appear on the surface just as we observed millions of them preserved in rocks today.

Rare events do not mean their outcomes are uncommon

That sounds a bit weird doesn’t it?  How can something be common and yet be exceedingly rare?   Both can be true because we are talking about two different things.  The chances that any single footprint made by a person will be preserved for thousands or millions of years is vanishingly small.   But even if only 1 out of every trillion footprints made is preserved, preserved footprints should be very common. And they are!

We could ask ourselves another question: What is the chance that no footprints would ever be preserved.  The answer is that there is less of a chance that none are preserved and any single print is preserved.  Why, because quintillions upon quintillions of footprints have been created over time.    Think of it as being like a lottery. What are the chances that an individual will win the lottery:  very small.  But what are the chances that someone will win the lottery even though the chance for each individual in very small?  Very high!

You have probably created hundreds of thousands of footprints in sand and mud in your lifetime. The chances that even one of them will still exist 1000 years from now is near zero percent.  But there are 7 billion people on earth, each of which is producing hundreds of thousands of footprints. What are the chances that some footprints of any of them will survive 1000 years:  If not 100% it is something very close to it.

Young-earth creationists have a footprint problem

There are billions of footprints in the geological column.  But according to young earth creationists, the majority of the geological column was formed over just a few months only 4350 years ago.  Hence, all the footprints had to have been formed nearly simultaneously during a global chaotic event in which thousands of feet of sediment were being deposited in a short period of time. Footprints in this geological record are devastating facts that speak against this alternative geological model of earth history.

Despite this challenge, young earth creationists (YECs) have not only not been willing to say this is a problem for their model but have sought to turn the tables and claim it is the conventional geologists that have a problem.

At an Answers in Genesis conference I attended a speaker mocked the idea that footprints of dinosaurs could be preserved by any process that occurs today, pointing out that it would be silly to think that footprints on a beach or even a muddy lake edge would last long enough to harden into rock and be preserved.  I understand these are over-generalizations made as a rhetorical tool to point the audience to a “better” solution to a falsely created “footprint problem,” but even the top YEC geologists, Dr. Snelling, at Answers in Genesis has made similar statements in print.  Here he addresses dinosaur footprints:

Biblical geologists, on the other hand, say it is the conventional geologists who, in fact, face a dilemma. If geologic change takes place slowly, surely footprints made in mud would be obliterated by wind and rain long before the prints were covered by new sediments and hardened into rock.

He further asks:

How can today’s slow-and-gradual geologic processes over millions of years explain the preservation of delicate impressions in mud before they are washed away? Does the Flood provide a better explanation?

Dr. Snelling’s answer to the last question is yes but only because he has intentionally created a false dichotomy for his audience. In addition to painting a false picture of what geologists believe about the principle of uniformitarianism, he portrays the conventional geological understanding as unable to explain the occurrence of footprints and thus if he can provide an explanation for any footprints at all it must be better.

As shocking as it might seem, Dr. Snelling doesn’t appear to be familiar with statistics or the many ways that footprints can form.  In a follow-up blog post and video I will will examine the statistical likelihood of dinosaur footprints being preserved over millions of years versus all at one time in a global flood.  But just notice for now that Dr. Snelling denies observational evidence we have before us right now in the present.  Footprints are being preserved today in many different environments and the mechanisms for their preservation are known and very reasonable.  I would point you to a case dozens of human footprints found recently which are 1250 year old.

YECs claim – and presumably believe – that special circumstances are required to explain footprints but since they believe that all, or nearly all, of them were produced in the span of one year during a flood, the huge number of prints contained in the rocks would require that a large percentage of all of the footprints made by animals running around trying to escape the flood had to be preserved. This is an extraordinarily unlikely scenario.

Not a paradox:  Footprints can be common even if they are rarely formed

From an ancient earth perspective only a few footprints of the multitude of individuals during the lifetime of a population of millions of individuals need be preserved every thousand years or more to account for the observed footprints in the geological record.  Even if only 0.000000001% of all footprints left by dinosaurs, mammals and humans were preserved, the geological record would be filled with footprints.  And it is!

I have written about preserved footprints many times and discussed how they challenge the flood geology hypotheses of young earth creationists (see: A New Dinosaur Trackway Near Moab, UTPreservation of Behavior – Fossilized Elephant Tracks from the Arabian Peninsula).  The fact that fossilization of footprints can happen without a global catastrophe is obvious once you become familiar with the footprint record.  After all, there are human footprints found in numerous places in the world (see my article: Human Fossil Footprints found below Ice Age Deposits) and all YECs recognize these as having been formed after a global flood.  Hence, they must be aware that footprints can be preserved in local contexts rather than during singularly unique global flood.

Next we will look more closely at dinosaur footprints and ask which model of Earth’s history better predicts the preserved footprints we observe today.

I took this picture of mudcracks in Death Valley. This hardened mud felt like walking on cement. These will persist for months and could be filled in with fine dust and eventually a flash flood will cover them with a new layer of mud next winter. Mudcracks pose the same problems to flood geology that fossil footprints do. Photo: Joel Duff, April 2017.

PS.  My collection of photography from Death Valley can be found at my photography site: http://beechnutphotography.com.
Featured image for the post is my father standing at Zabriski Point overlooking Death Valley.
Editing provided by LC

8 thoughts on “A Fossil Paradox? Footprints are Rarely Preserved in Stone and yet are very Common

  1. As someone who has spent much of my life studying fossil footprints and other trace fossils, I can testify that YECs clearly have it backwards. We have extensive evidence of footprints not only being preserved today, but of billions of tracks and trails and burrows and millions of sites (including zillions of invertebrate traces) over virtually the entire macrofossil record from Precambrian onward. None of this makes any sense in a YEC/FG paradigm. Besides the points Joel made, that fossil tracks far outnumber bones is perfectly logical in view of the fact that an animal can leave at most one skeleton (and often that doesn’t preserve well if at all), whereas it can make millions of tracks in it’s lifetime, making it likely that some will be preserved. Worse of all for YECS is that millions of dinosaur tracks and thousands of sites around the world, plus vast nesting sites, occur during the Mesozoic era, when according to most YEC flood models, the Flood was at or near it’s peak, with the entire world covered by water. For these and other reasons, for YECs to suggest their model better explains track evidence is ludicrous. The following article discusses many other reasons why trace fossils strongly contradict YEC claims: http://paleo.cc/ce/tracefos.htm. For refutations of specific YEC claims about allegedly out-of-place human tracks, see my Paluxy website here: http://paleo.cc/paluxy.htm


  2. Joel, I left a post similar to the one below, but don’t see it in the Comments, so unless it is pending, I am afraid some glitch may have occurred. Hopefully the new comments will go through. If the first one is just pending, please just post whichever you think is most useful. Thanks.
    As someone who has spent much of my life studying fossils tracks, I can testify that YECs have it backwards. Besides the evidence Joel outlined for many modern and recent tracks being preserved, there is no way a violent global Flood can explain billions of dinosaur and other vertebrate tracks at thousands of sites around the world, let alone scores of vast nesting sites. Indeed, according to most YECs, the Mesozoic strata they occur in represents a time when the Genesis Flood was at or near it’s peek, with the the entire world covered by water. In view of this and many other contradiction in their model, their claim that it better explains track evidence is ludicrous. They also can’t explain how so many dinosaurs managed to leave so many tracks and nests at so many sites, while thousands of large modern mammal species didn’t leave any in the same strata. In fact, Mesozoic mammal tracks are largely unknown, except for a handful of rodent like forms, matching the bone record. As far as tracks being more common than bones, besides the factors Joel mentioned, it’s perfectly logical in view of the fact that an animal could leave at most one skeleton (and often little if any of that is fossilized) whereas it could make millions of tracks in its lifetime, making it likely that some would be preserved. For more reasons why fossil tracks and other trace fossils represent huge problems for YECism and Flood Geology, see my article here: http://paleo.cc/ce/tracefos.htm
    For refutations of specific YEC claims about alleged out-of-place human tracks (which most YECs have abandoned in recent years) see my Paluxy website:


    1. Hi Glenn, I’m sorry. Missed that one thinking I had approved of them. Thanks for your continued insights. I always learn a lot from your experience.


      1. Hi Joel. No problem. I just wanted to check that one or the other was posted, but doing both is fine too despite their being somewhat redundant. I appreciate your many good insights too on fossil tracks and many other aspects of the C/E issue. Thanks!


  3. What if the tracks were made by the descendants of the dinos which walked off the ark?
    If the ark landed on Triassic rocks, then the tracks would be made as dinosaurs multiplied and diversified as Jurassic and Cretaceous rocks were laid down during episodic flooding caused by tectonic activity during the break up of pangea.


    1. That would be possible in the Flood scenario that puts the Flood/post-Flood boundary much deeper in the geological column. Some did including some European creationists but the AiG model of the K/Pg boundary and the ICR model of way up in the Neogene would prohibit any dinosaur track that we know of as having come from dinosaurs that lived after leaving Noah’s Ark.


    2. Marc,
      First, that puts the end of the Flood much lower than what most creationists say (usually end Mesozoic or later). It also still leaves many serious problems for the YEC viewpoint. For example, why would there be billions of dinosaur tracks at thousands of sites all over the workd, as well as billions of fossil bones of dinosaurs and other typical Mesozoic creatures in these sediments, but no tracks or bones of large modern mammals that also would have debarked from the Ark? Even the handful of claimed exceptions have not been confirmed or endorsed by any major YEC group. Where are all the expected tracks and fossils of dogs, cats, horses, camels, cattle, deer, bears, elephants, rhinos, humans, etc, etc in such strata? And since these many other animal groups survived into modern times, and most reproduced at least as well as dinosaurs in a variety of environments, this is no small problem for your hypothesis or YECIsm in general. Of course, none of this is a problem in the mainstream view of Earth history, which is supported by mountains of other evidence. That’s why the vast majority of geologists and paleontologists (including most Christian ones) reject YECism. Have you read my article on the way fossil tracks refute Flood geology, or many others at my Paluxy website addressing these issues (referenced above?), or other articles by Joel on this blog that address fossil footprints and other evidence against the YEC model? If not, I encourage you to do so.

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