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Hikers discover 310-million-year-old animal prints on well-traveled Grand Canyon path

When you’re out hiking, you never know what you might see. You could cross paths with lizards, tarantulas or a rock that changes scientists' understanding of life in the Southwest.

Hikers on the Grand Canyon's well-traveled Bright Angel Trail stumbled last year on a slab of fallen rock traversed by odd indentations like overly baked footprints that proved 310 million years old.

A set of 28 small footprints were discovered on a slab of rock that had fallen from the canyon wall. It turns out that the set of tracks predates dinosaurs by nearly 250 million years. Steve Rowland, a professor of geology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, called the find remarkable.

“There are some trilobite tracks and other little arthropods and things older. But in terms of actual vertebrate animals these are the oldest by far. Nobody’s ever found any tracks this low, this old in in the Grand Canyon,” Rowland said.

Until now, no reptile tracks have ever been found in this type of rock before in the Grand Canyon. Rowland said paleontologists such as himself have never bothered to look in that area for ancient animal tracks since none have ever been found. But this discovery is a game changer.

“Now that we know there were animals walking around … at that time period we can … look at some other places and see if we can find any any additional tracks.”

But what animal made those tracks is still a mystery. Rowland said it’s definitely some kind of prehistoric reptilian creature, which was living at the very beginning of reptile evolution.

“It looks like a reptile track. Amphibian tracks tend to have short stubby little toes like salamander toes for example or toad toes. These these are long skinny toes that look much more reptilian,” Rowland said. “So I think this is some sort of reptile but it’s extraordinarily early just the reptiles were just appearing at the time that this animal was walking around.”

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The critter might have looked like some sort of small reptile, but paleontologists won’t really know without finding the animal’s bones, Rowland said.

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Steve Rowland/University of Nevada, Las Vegas

A set of 28 small footprints were discovered on a slab of rock that fell from a wall deep in the Grand Canyon. Paleontologists say the tracks were made by an early reptile nearly 250 million years before the rise of dinosaurs.