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Dinosaur footprint at Red Rock Canyon appeared, then disappeared
At some point, about 100 million years ago, when Pikes Peak had not yet risen and Colorado Springs was beach-front property on a warm, shallow sea, a dinosaur with three long, clawed toes ambled out of the forest and stepped into a patch of sandy mud in what is now Red Rock Canyon Open Space.
The print it left was covered in muck, and stayed covered for eons as the shales and limestones of advancing seas piled on. Then the rise of the Rockies pushed the fossil print back to the surface, where some time this spring it was exposed when a chunk of sandstone tumbled off a ridge in the city open space on the west side and came to rest next to a trail.
About a month later it disappeared, likely stolen.
What kind of dinosaur was it? Iguanodons and ankylosaurus with a similar print roamed the area, but with the fossil gone, experts say it is impossible to say.
But for anyone who saw the print for the brief time it was visible, it was a thing of wonder. The rock was not much to look at — a lumpy print on a lumpy stone about the size of a cinder block. But it captured a moment of time from the peak of dino diversity, when ostrich-like ornithomimids raced across the coastal plain, flying pterosaurs with wingspans reaching 20 feet skimmed fish from the waves, and razor-toothed predators stalked vast herds of duck-billed hadrosaurs.
Passers-by could place their hands in the outspread stone toeprints and imagine the perspective of a creature living both at the height of its evolution and the cusp of its destruction. Then, even before city officials or paleontologists knew it was there, someone apparently carted it away.
It is illegal to collect souvenirs from city parks and open spaces, but this disappearing fossil is hardly unique. Sharon Milito, a paleontologist who did the paleontological survey of the park in 2006, cached several ancient shark teeth she discovered under a rock to collect later. When she returned, they were gone.
“Things that are loose we take to the museum because people will certainly steal them,” she said. “But if it is in the rock, we like to keep it there. It tells the story of this place.”
Even with attached fossils, she said, curious visitors take their toll. At a spot in nearby Section 16 where bits of dinosaur bone jut from the rock, she said, people have been pecking away for keepsakes.
The disappearance of the fossil footprint this summer raises questions about how best to preserve the prehistoric heritage that litters the region’s open space.
“We struggle with it mightily,” said Matt Mayberry, the city’s cultural services manager.
“Things like this have happened at a number of sites. Our region is wealthy beyond imagination in terms ancient history and we have to walk a fine line between trying to protect these resources and educate the public.”
In Red Rock Canyon, the city mapped delicate resources such as fossils and dino prints, then purposefully kept trails away if the resources were considered too fragile, Mayberry said. The city plans to create interpretive signs about the park’s dinosaurs with casts of footprints, located away from the fossils.
“That way people can learn about these resources while we still protect them,” he said.
It may not be too late for the missing footprint. In the past, the city has offered amnesty for fossil filchers: Take arrowheads, ammonites and other collectibles nicked from parks to the museum and there will be no penalty.
Mayberry said his office would consider doing the same for the dino footprint, adding “The community would love to have it back.”