Thunder in His Footsteps

The ghost of the most gigantic animal that ever walked the earth is conjured to life when a lone fossil hunter tracks down the first true footprints left by this stupendous creature, and thrills to the romance of a great discovery.

Paluxy River ancient mudflat

The Paluxy River, in Texas, has recently eroded sediments, exposing the ancient mudflat on which the dinosaurs left their footprints, long since turned to stone. At right is seen R. T. Bird of Barnum Brown’s dinosaur corps on a lone hunt for footprints planned to be installed in the American Museum’s new Jurassic Hall, just opened.

R. T. Bird

There seemed to be only the three-toed tracks left to work with, so I planned to find the best ones. I wanted to locate a prospective slab for the American Museum. It would have to be done systematically, starting in at the beginning, and uncovering all places where I knew from experience the tracks existed. To take out such a slab would have to be a consideration for the future, but I wanted definite assurance that one was here.

I started above the “second crossing,” worked that area carefully, and then came upstream a mile above the “third.” Tracks had been waterworn and scattering below, but up here prospects were better. Then one morning, little dreaming what lay in store for the day, I finished cleaning off two of the best trails as yet encountered. They had been made by two large carnivores walking close together—creatures with seven-foot strides that would have towered thirteen feet or more in height, probably weighing several thousand pounds each. It was quite evident the mud they walked on had had a firm base, as neither animal sank more deeply than three inches.

The Lucky Strike

Around noon I had finished everything but digging the prospector’s usual “three-feet-beyond-your-specimen-just-for-luck,” when I spotted a large pothole filled with silt that didn’t seem to be anything, but which was right there inviting an investigation. When I dug into it and threw back a few shovelfuls for a look-see, my heart nearly jumped out of my mouth. There, right at my very feet, was a depression totally unlike any I had ever seen before, but one I instantly surmised must be a sauropod footprint. The thing was still partially filled with river silt, and I hardly dared believe it could be, yet its general contours matched perfectly my preconceptions of such a track. It had the shape of a gigantic lizard’s foot, might almost have served to take a bath in, and had been impressed deeply in the surface. Now I recalled Ryals’ mention of such tracks under the heavy gravel bar. “Good old Ryals,” I said to myself, “the man must have been right at that!”

It was like uncovering a place where one of the pillars of Hercules might have stood. My emotions could not have been more stirred over a find of dinosaur eggs. It seemed like an hour, but it must have been less than a minute before my shovel grated bottom, and with a little careful sweeping out the thing was clean enough to be defined. Something about it had seemed almost too easy. Here I had been working diligently all that morning, without suspecting a thing like this was near me; and yet here it was, a sauropod footprint. The river gurgled past me, laughing, as I studied the four deep claw- scratches, the huge one on the inner toe: the typical upward curve of the reptilian heel, and other detail. The print was that of a right hind foot.

Giant Stride

For the next few moments I did the things which any track hunter would have done under the circumstances. I stood up and glanced around the track ledge, wondering where such a gigantic foot had been placed at the end of the next step. The entire ledge on that side was littered with silt thrown from the other trail. The last rise in the river had swept in quantities of mud and this had thoroughly covered this other trail. I figured in a straight line the way the toes were pointed, and shoveled out a likely place. But nothing was there—just solid ledge. Then I ran my shovel along until it hit the rim of another depression.

It was all of twelve feet away from the other. Heavens, had the fellow stepped that far! I threw about a wheelbarrow load of dirt out of it, trying to orient my conceptions of such an animal. I looked up, half expecting to see a mountain of animal above me. But here it was again, the impression of another right hind foot, like a fossil hunter’s pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

Then a left print so badly waterworn that I hadn’t suspected it as being a track, over by the river’s edge. Each of these three prints was over a yard in length, by nearly two-thirds of a yard across. All were four-clawed, and as such, could be definitely classified as hind feet. So fascinated that I didn’t think to pull off my shoes, I sloshed around in shallow water just beyond, to locate where both rights and lefts continued. While so engaged I noted still other sauropod tracks in deeper water. Evidently more than one of these fellows had been wandering around there once.

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