Prehistoric Trackways a Treasure Trove of Unique Resources

Monday, April 9, 2018

What was life like when all continents were together in one super continent? The answer to this question is complex. However, there’s a special place that holds the answer to this and many other paleontological questions. It’s called the Prehistoric Trackways National Monument and it’s accessible for the public to explore and enjoy.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the proud custodian of this diverse and fascinating landscape just northwest of Las Cruces and Colin Dunn is the BLM paleontologist knowledgeable about its unique public land resources.

Every month on a Saturday morning, Dunn leads a three-hour hike to the Robledo Mountains. His purpose is to expose and educate the public to the monument’s important geologic history and significant paleontological and recreation features.

The hike to the Discovery Site takes visitors to the original deposit of Paleozoic Era fossilized “trackways” – footprints of numerous amphibians, reptiles, insects and plants.  While hiking the terrain, Dunn discusses the importance of this site to the scientific study of the early Permian Period and the associated animal behaviors and paleo-environments of the time, predating dinosaurs.

“The preservation quality and fossil diversity gives us a real snapshot into the paleoecosystem, more than just bones alone could do,” he said.

For the Site Flood hike, Dunn takes hikers to an area in the monument containing petrified wood. Along the way, visitors learn about the numerous marine invertebrates that lived in the ancient oceans over 280 million years ago, as well as shallow-water trackmakers that left their mark on the nearby tidal flats.

For both hikes, Dunn tells the story of how the “prehistoric trackways” was first discovered in 1987 by Jerry MacDonald, citizen-scientist of Las Cruces, and what it took to excavate and curate a unique collection of 2,500 slabs of fossilized trackways.  The collection is now part of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque, the Federal Repository for fossils in New Mexico.  However, some of these trackways are on display here in Las Cruces, at the Museum of Nature and Science

According to Dunn, The monument serves as a special outdoor laboratory for the public to learn about paleontology and geology in their backyard.

”The museums have excellent examples of the fossils found here, but there is something to be said from seeing them in their original geological context,” he said. “Many of the tracks and traces are very subtle, and until I point them out, most people just walk past them.”

The Prehistoric Trackways National Monument was established by Congress in 2009 to conserve, protect and enhance the 5,280 acres of unique and national-important paleontological, scientific, educational, scenic and recreational resources and values.

For more information on the monument and the monthly hikes, visit the BLM Las Cruces District office at 1800 Marquess Street or call 575-525-4300.  In addition, the BLM website provides interactive maps on the monument’s recreation resources.