There were big animals, like the 25-foot prosauropod, and small ones, like the pigeon-sized three-toed little guy who hasn’t yet been identified with a name.
Some of them, including the long-necked prosauropod, were herbivores; others, like the 15-foot Kayentapus, were carnivores. But they all needed water, and they must have figured out how to live and let live when they visited their water hole.
It must have just rained because the sand was wet. Later in the day some dry mud blew in … and then more sand … and then much more sand. And long after those dinosaurs had died and the land had become as dry as the Sahara is today, the sand kept piling up – the sheer weight of it turning sand to stone.
Millions of years later, the earth began to rise, some of the sandstone eroded, and now, just a few years ago, a human wandering by noticed a dinosaur print in the rock.
When scientists arrived to look at what the man had seen, they realized they weren’t just looking at one print, or ten or a hundred; they were looking at thousands of prints – a time capsule of everything that had happened that day, 185 million years ago, when the local inhabitants wandered down to their water hole.
(No wonder, when I went to look at them, I couldn’t figure out which of the markings were footprints and which were just other marks in the rock. It was only when I got back home and checked out some of the research that I discovered they’re all footprints – thousands of them!)
The Moccasin Mountain Dinosaur Track Site, as it’s known, is in the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in Southern Utah, about 20 miles from Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. Much of the two-mile dirt road that leads to it is deep sand, so a Jeep or similar is required. In summer it’s a better idea to walk.
When you get there, be careful where you step; some of the tracks are faint and they’re rapidly eroding away.
And keep in mind that what you’re looking at was made 185 million years ago, has been buried under thousands of tons of rock since then, came to the surface not long ago after all that rock had been worn away, and will soon, in turn, be gone forever.
When those dinos walked by, it was the early years of the Jurassic Era. The Triassic Age had come to an end in a great extinction of species. (No one is quite sure what brought that about.) And North America was beginning to pull away from the vast super-continent of Pangaea.
The Triassic had been dominated by the reptiles, and the extinction event had given the dinosaurs their big break. Those amazing animals, who live on today as birds, would become the dominant species for the next 120 million years.
These amazing animals, who live on today as birds, would become the dominant species for the next 120 million years.Then came the famous Fifth Great Extinction, 65 million years ago, apparently set in motion by an asteroid crashing into Mexico’s Yucatan. That gave an opening to another obscure species, the mammals, who were, back then, just little squirrely things living mostly underground.
So when you visit the tracks at Moccasin Mountain, you’re looking at a time that’s twice as far back from the extinction of the dinos as that extinction is from us today.
The great ape family, of which we humans are part, first appeared about 15 million years ago. Modern humans, homo sapiens sapiens, have been around for about 200,000 years. Civilization as we know it today began about 10,000 years ago. And we are now in the early days of a sixth extinction – not due to an asteroid or volcano, but to human behavior.
Most species don’t survive beyond about a million years. We humans may go down in history as one of the shortest-lived species. Our cousins, the great apes, have about another 50 years to go before they’re all gone. Will the mammals overall be as successful as the dinosaurs? Who knows?
All we can be fairly sure of is that a few million years from now, Australia will have crashed into South Asia, and the other continents will be drawing closer, too, re-forming themselves into a new Pangaea. We humans will long be gone – most our works slowly subsumed into the roiling mantle of the Earth beneath us.
You’re looking at a time twice as far back from the extinction of the dinos as that extinction is from us today.For those of us today who care deeply about what’s happening to the elephants, the gorillas, the frogs, the bats, the bees and the many thousands of other animals falling victim to the Sixth Great Extinction, it is perhaps good to know that the reign of humans is no more than the proverbial blink-of-an-eye in an incomprehensibly vast span of time. We are specks of dust upon those sands of time. And even when we’re thinking of ourselves in terms of the damage we’re doing, we’re giving ourselves far too much significance.
Soon we’ll be gone. Life will go on. And the dinosaurs – now birds – will live on, some of them perhaps leaving their three-toed footprints in the wet sand one rainy afternoon near where their ancestors walked by 185 million years ago.