“Irreplaceable” reptile track fossils that are roughly 250 million years old were stolen from Capitol Reef National Park, and rangers are asking the public to help find and prosecute those responsible.
The “trace” fossils (which consist of evidence that an organism existed, but not an actual body part) from the early Triassic period were taken from the park sometime between August 2017 and August 2018, according to a Tuesday news release from the National Park Service.
The agency posted a photo of where the reptile track fossils were seemingly sliced away from a chunk of red rock in the park.
Andrew Milner, site paleontologist and curator at the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site — a dinosaur track museum — told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday that the markings were likely made by an animal as it swam along a waterway. Its toes struck the soft river bottom as it kicked against the current, leaving long grooves that were eventually filled in with coarser sand.
Over millions of years, the softer rock on the underside eroded away, leaving casts of the original swim traces behind as fossils.
The tracks that Milner studies were made by dinosaurs in the early Jurassic period, he said, but the markings in Capitol Reef were made right before the first dinosaurs appeared.
Unfortunately, he said, some prehistoric sites in Capitol Reef are close to roads, where visitors can happen upon them. “There are lots of people that really appreciate these natural resources for what they are,” Milner said. “And there’s the rare few that really don’t.”
Park rangers are offering a reward of $1,000 for information that leads to the identification and prosecution of whomever removed the fossils from Capitol Reef.
The National Park Service did not respond to an emailed inquiry as of Wednesday afternoon. A phone call to the Capitol Reef visitors center was not immediately answered.
In April, Zion National Park officials said staffers had been working to clean up widespread vandalism, including rock carvings, stickers and graffiti.
Whenever fossils are vandalized or stolen, “it’s a sad thing,” Milner said, “because a lot of these sites are scientifically significant. ... The more of these sites that we discover, the more we learn about our prehistoric past.”