Whenever you’ve been in any profession long enough, you’re bound to be thought of as “the old guy.” And that’s the nice way that some may refer to you. Just as likely, some of the younger and fresher faces on the team are liable to refer to you as “the geezer” or “the relic,” and that’s just the stuff you can print. But as I age I have come to view these labels as a sign of respect, and am proud to say that I’m getting to be (and may even be considered by some) one of these old coots, and have the pleasure of working with many others of similar status.
So it was with esteem that I recently called one of my far-flung associates a “dinosaur.” I see Steve Theodore one or two times a year out west when my travels take me there. He has a more than a few years and a ton of experience under his belt, and so this appellation seemed appropriate in a friendly joshing manner. What I didn’t realize until then, however, is that the label may mean far more in a natural history sort of way.
Seems several years ago Steve and his son were out hiking near their home in the Valley of Fire, a state park in Nevada about an hour’s drive north of Las Vegas where they live. They had been there many times before, wandering around the local rock formations and landscapes. After a night of camping, they woke up one cool September morning to scramble up the rocks and onto a ridge which provided an unobstructed view of the sunrise. Taking a break to enjoy the view, they happened to glance down and something caught their eye. "As we were standing on this one rock, I said, ‘Evan, is this what it looks like to me?’ And he said, `These are footprints.’”
They looked around them to find what turned out to be nine parallel sets of tracks containing more than 90 individual fossilized paw prints on two rock slabs. The tracks appeared to be heading uphill, based on the depressions. In some cases there were imprints from three-clawed toes, while other traces looked to have four toes. They varied in size, with some about the size of a quarter and others about the size of a 50-cent piece. There were even some larger prints that were about the size of human foot.
Steve and his son had hiked before in the park, and had seen the petroglyphs, or rock art, which had been scratched into the walls thousands of years before by early Indian inhabitants. But they had never seen, much less heard about, preserved footprints that were obviously from some creatures that lived in a much more distant past.
They took pictures, noted the location and continued on their hike. Upon returning, Steve emailed some of the pictures to Steve Rowland, a geosciences professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, whose specialty is paleontology. Steve R. quickly got back to Steve T. with a simple question: “Where did you get these, and can you take me there?” The Theodores met up with the professor, a Paleontologist from the Nevada Museum of Natural History and a park ranger, and headed back their find. There they took lots of pictures, plaster casts and measurements.
Back in the lab, Rowland went to work, and was able to identify at least one set, as "ichnogenus Brasilichnium." As the name implies, these were similar to fossils found in Brazil in 1911 by a mining engineer. The theory is that these early mammals were small dessert creatures, probably something akin to furry squirrels. “These were the guys running between the legs of the big Jurassic dinosaurs," postulates Rowland.
The rest of the tracks are still being studied and investigated. According to Theodore, “A second set of what looks like a webbed-type foot is yet to be confirmed. The third and largest prints, the ones the size of a human foot, are in question as to whether they are tracks or just coincidental erosion in the sandstone. What makes it hard to believe that it is erosion is the fact that they are all equal in size, shape and distance apart from each other.”
As to the story these tracks tell, Theodore says there are two theories. “The first guess is that the little creatures were being hunted. All 90+ tracks are parallel and appear to be moving in the same direction. But at one point, the biggest tracks suddenly turn at a hard right angle pushing up a mound of mud, as if whatever made them darted off quickly to chase something. The other theory is that there was a watering hole nearby and the path to it narrowed down to where many species wanting to drink had to move through the same spot.”
Unfortunately, if you go to Valley of Fire, you won’t be able to see the prints for yourself. “The area is now ‘restricted’ and even we are prohibited from going there,” says Theodore. “I was in the park not long ago and asked one of the employees if there are any dinosaur tracks in the area. I was told that there weren't, which tells me that they still don't want it publicized. No doubt if the location were known the tracks would be vandalized, or worse, pried up and stolen.”
At this time, Rowland and his colleagues continue their investigations. As for Theodore, aside from looking forward to the time when other people get to share in the discovery that he and his son made, he has one other hope. “Should they be unable to identify one of the tracks, there’s a chance we might get to name it. Yes folks... a Theodorasaurus could be on the loose! Or maybe Ted-Rex is more appropriate.”
And so next time I see Steve and call him a dinosaur, it may be more than just a joke or a sign of respect. If the scientists come up dry, he might be able to hold a little ceremony, and see his family name become enshrined for generations of future schoolchildren to memorize. And I won’t be talking to just a co-worker, but to a whole new type of beast.
Marc Wollin of Bedford has never had anything named for him. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at http://www.glancingaskance.blogspot.com/.