A pair of hikers walking through the Valley of Fire State Park have added a new chapter to our understanding of life in Nevada millions of years ago. A father and son who were climbing rocks inside the Valley of Fire came across sets of tracks that date back to the Jurassic period. Investigative reporter George Knapp has the story. Aired on Aug. 5, 2003, on KLAS TV in Las Vegas.
Freelance TV producer Steve Theodore and his son Evan were on one of their annual hikes through the Valley of Fire when they noticed unusual markings on what is now a hard sandstone ridge in a remote part of the park.
“I didn’t recognize it at first,” Steve Theodore said. But then it registered. These were very old.
“I didn’t know there were dinosaur footprints out here,” EvanTheodore said. “We walked right over it and he was like, Evan, come look at this and I turned around and there’s dinosaur footprints everywhere. I’m like hey that’s cool.”
The tracks date from the Mid-Jurassic period, and we all know from the movies what kind of predators were roaming the Earth at that time. The animals that scampered up what was then a wet sand dune likely were therapsids. It’s sort of a cross between mammals and lizards.
“The time that these tracks were made is a really interesting time in the history of life,” said Steve Rowland, a UNLV paleontologist. “It was the Jurassic period when the dinosaurs were the most dominant conspicuous terrestrial animals, but the mammals were also lurking around in the shadows and in the caves and in the trees.”
There are nine separate sets of tracks skittering up the ancient dune, suggesting these animals traveled in a pack or extended family.
Similar tracks were first found in Brazil. At the time the tracks were made, North and South America had just begun to split up and drift apart, which explains why the same animals existed on both continents. The Nevada environment back then was probably a vast sandy desert, part of which transformed into the Valley of Fire.
The scientists who’ve seen the tracks are genuinely excited about what we will learn from this.
“The exciting thing for me about this locality is it tells us new information to answer those very questions. We know very, very little about mammals and mammal-like reptiles that lived back in the Mesozoic era,” Rowland said.
“We have a few bones and a few teeth in different parts of the world, but the thing about tracks is it tells us something about behavior that you can’t get from the bones. We can actually see these animals moving. This particular locality might be one of the few, as far as I know, it’s the first in the world,” he said.
The exact location of the tracks will be kept secret to protect them. It’s not an easy place to get to anyway. Scientists have taken measurements and made impressions of the tracks both for study and so they can help the park build a public display so everyone can experience the amazing find.
“It is very cool. I think for the people of Nevada and for Valley of Fire State Park, it’s a very significant discovery,” Rowland said.
“I think they should name it after us,” Evan Theodore said.
Maybe they will.
After more analysis, scientists say it appears that more than one ancient animal left tracks in that same spot, but they aren’t sure just yet what the other animal was.