09 Those Fossilized Footprints in Kansas

Historically, geologists and paleontologists have named individual units of rock based in part on the distinct groupings of fossils they contain. These names are used here initially for descriptive purposes, without assuming any specific interpretation of the age of the earth.

My strict young-earth creationist position began seriously to unravel in the summer of 1982.   A year into my graduate studies, I was invited by Dr. Robert R. Reisz at the University of Toronto to join his field crew quarrying in Pennsylvanian-Period sedimentary rocks near Garnett, Kansas.

We were searching for the fossilized remains of pelycosaurs (mammal-like reptiles, a group to which the well-known sail-backed Dimetrodon belongs). Their skeletons were preserved in fine-grained and very thinly laminated (bedded) siltstones.

The Pennsylvanian-period pelycosaur quarry near Garnett, Kansas as it appeared in May of 1982. Photo courtesy of R. R. Reisz.

As we chiseled and split our way down through the layers, we found the fossilized remains of both plants and fish. In addition to these, we exposed many layers that preserved the fossilized footprints and trackways of both large and small tetrapods, i.e. four-footed animals.

A stylized representation of seven thin layers of sedimentary rock preserved near Garnett, Kansas. In addition to plant remains, fossilized footprints and trackways of both small and large terrestrial animals are common and preserved on many layers. The largest footprints are approximately four inches wide. The layers are fine-grained and thinly laminated, attesting to the calm environmental conditions that prevailed during their deposition. Illustration by S. Godfrey.

Fossilized trackways, impressions, footprints, burrows or other markings left by once-living organisms are referred to as trace fossils. We collected many of these trace fossils, since much can be learned about how an animal moves, among other things, by studying the traces it leaves behind.

A series of small footprints crosses this small slab of sedimentary rock from Garnett. Each footprint is about one inch long. The weight of the small lizard-like animals was sufficient to deform the soft mud, indicating that they were not submerged under water when the tracks were made. Photo by. S. Godfrey.

These trace fossils really got in our way, however, because they slowed down our efforts to reach for the fossils Dr. Reisz was really after. They got in my way personally as well. It would be difficult for me to overstate the impact these simple fossilized footprint impressions had upon me. In retrospect, I don’t think anything else I have ever seen has so profoundly changed my life.

If all sedimentary rocks, and the fossils within them, were the result of the Flood, how, I wondered, could these fossil footprints have been made? All living land-dwelling animals were supposed to have been drowned in the Flood (except those on the ark, of course). Certainly none were walking around underwater leaving footprints! The trace fossils I was seeing had to have been made after the Flood, or perhaps even before it. It was forcefully obvious to me that not all sedimentary rocks came about as a result of the Flood.

How, then, could anyone know which sedimentary layers were the result of a world-wide deluge, and which resulted from local or global pre- or post-flood phenomena? Posed with this quandary, I began to accumulate literature back at McGill on the occurrence of track or trace fossils in other parts of the world. One of the final nails in the coffin of “flood geology” came for me when I realized that fossil tracks and traces made by terrestrial animals occur at countless levels throughout sedimentary rock formations all around the world.

There was no conceivable way to account for the occurrence of all of these animal trackways in rocks that had been deposited by a Flood which was supposed to have killed all the animals capable of making the trackways. Trace fossils don’t sort hydrodynamically or by ecological zonations! Footprints of terrestrial animals are made when the mud or other soft sediments they are stepping in form the outer-most layer of the earth’s surface. To be preserved and incorporated into the fossil record, an existing footprint must be covered very “carefully” under calm environmental conditions, not those characterizing a global flood.

The existence of multiple footprint layers in one location would demand the fortuitous combination of animals walking over plastic (soft deformable) sediments, followed by the burial of those footprints by sediments under conditions that would not destroy them in the process of burial. This process would have to have repeated itself at least as many times are there were distinct layers of footprints in one area.

Animal trackways are preserved by the fortuitous combination of live animals walking over soft sediments, followed by the burial of the footprints by additional sediments under conditions that will not destroy the delicate footprints in the process. These conditions exist on muddy tidal flats or meandering riverbanks, where rising and falling water levels with little or no wave action can cover the footprints with thin layers of sediment. Here an amphibian sprawls its way across a mud flat.
A pelycosaur makes another trackway in the same area as the earlier amphibian. The pelycosaur’s footprints are separated from the buried amphibian trackway by the amount of time it took to deposit the intervening layers of sediment.
A dinosaur crosses the same area after the pelycosaur trackway has similarly been buried, leaving ephemeral footprints that may or may not be preserved. Illustrations by S. Godfrey.

Furthermore, different kinds of animal tracks appear at different levels in the geologic column. For example, we don’t find moose tracks running all the way up through the geologic column, as we might expect if these trace fossils were made as these animals ran for higher ground during the opening days of Noah’s Flood.

If I knew only about trace fossils and had no other evidence for the great antiquity of the earth, I would still be able to conclude confidently that the world’s sedimentary rocks were not the product of one gigantic, year-long flood. The presence of these delicate footprint fossils also proved to me that fossilization was not necessarily the result of a catastrophic event.

I often thought in those days of the analogy that had come to me years earlier between layers of snow along the side of the road and layers of sedimentary rock. Years later, I observed footprint fossils on layers that also preserved fossil mud cracks. The cracks proved that these were sun-baked sediments, which could hardly have been formed during Noah’s Flood!

Footprint fossils from Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, Canada. Mud cracks crisscross the surface of this sample. Fossilized footprints of land animals on mud-cracked sediments are incompatible with the conditions demanded by a single global flood. To suggest that these kinds of fossils must therefore have formed either before or after Noah’s Flood is to ignore the fact that they occur throughout the portion of the geologic column that preserves the remains of all multi-cellular land animals. Photo by S. Godfrey.

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