Gunnison man assists in recovery of dinosaur fossil

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Preserving a connection to the past
Thu, 06/29/2017 - 9:53am gunn1son
Gunnison man assists in recovery of dinosaur fossil
Chris Rourke
Times Staff Writer


They were massive, some even ferocious and once dominated the Earth. Long after their extinction, remnants of their existence still remain in locations within a day’s drive of the Gunnison Valley.

A Gunnison man has long been fascinated with their history and the tracks that surround Lake Powell near Page, Ariz., even hosting guided tours for family. Recently, Mike Callihan accompanied National Park Service (NPS) officers on the recovery of a dinosaur track which is estimated at about 190 million years old.

"I've been doing this for a number of years — you find one and you're hooked," said Callihan. "These are animals that — it's hard to believe — evolved into birds. I'm glad they did."

A little more than a decade ago, the dinosaur tracks at Glen Canyon Recreation Area were made famous by a photographer who documented thousands of tracks in a photo book. "The Lost Tracks" by Andre Delgalvis showed the impressive prints etched into Navajo sandstone.

Callihan, who likes to boat on Lake Powell, was told of the tracks during one of his trips. He explored the area and came across two-and-a-half-inch prints of what was one of two types of theropod dinosaurs that once inhabited the area. This particular dinosaur was about the size of a turkey, according to scientists — with a lot of sharp teeth.

Callihan was fascinated and began relaying information to NPS chief scientist at Glen Canyon, John Spence. Over the years, Callihan and Spence exchanged e-mails and information until one day when the scientist extended to Callihan an invitation to participate in a recovery.

"I knew he would be in the area where the park service was going to come in with a couple of boats and armed rangers," said Spence of the recovery. "I wasn't expecting him to get all that excited, and he actually helped carry it down."

The track measuring 8 by 13 inches was cast in a stone weighing at least 100 pounds. It is believed to have been left by a 23-foot Dilophosaurus from the early Jurassic Period. Dilophosauras means "double crested lizard" and was so named for the two thin crests it had on its head.

It appeared that someone attempted to carry it out of the area, but may have dropped it, breaking off the tip of the track's toe. NPS' Spence said theft and damage to tracks is common, although federal law forbids the removal of them from public lands by visitors.

A recovery team including Callihan was sent to the area where they wrapped the fossil in a blanket and loaded it onto a stretcher. Since Callihan was so familiar with the area, he was able to guide the group out through a shorter path to the lake's edge. The track was then taken by boat to the NPS field office.

Spence said there are three possibilities of where the track will eventually be displayed. One option is to keep it in a visitors center at Lake Powell to demonstrate to tourists that removing the tracks from the recreation area is not only illegal but can damage the remnants. The two other options would be to put it in the Museum of Natural History in Salt Lake City, or the University of Colorado-Boulder museum.

"Boulder has most of our collected trackways," said Spence. "Researchers are allowed to collect trackways and study them."

Beyond the science of the track, Callihan is more concerned about people being able to experience what he has — what he described as a primal experience of being connected with the past. That's why he has taken local people to Lake Powell to experience the tracks firsthand. He is also excited that these tracks will be preserved for years to come.

"To watch people in three dimensions put their hands in the dinosaur print — it does this magical transformation. It's truly a connection … and they grin," said Callihan. "I call it the dino smile."

(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at [email protected].)
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