Thursday, February 02, 2006

Ancient footprints are everywhere

In 1999, an Oneonta High School science teacher named Ashley Allen discovered a paleontological marvel in an abandoned surface coal mine near Jasper in Walker County: fossilized tracks marking the progress of a host of creatures as they walked, slithered, flopped and crawled through a tidal flat 310 million years ago.

Between 2000 and 2004, Steven C. Minkin and the other members of the Alabama Paleontological Society (or APS) painstakingly retrieved from the old Union Chapel Mine more than 2,000 specimens -- invaluable evidence of ancient fish, amphibians, shellfish, worms, insects (even insect larvae) and, yes, maybe reptiles, too. The specimens contain the earliest evidence, anywhere in the world, of group behavior in fish and amphibians.

The site of this treasure trove was at risk, interestingly enough, because of federal conservation law that requires abandoned mines to be restored to their natural state. In this case, that would have meant reburying the fossils and planting a forest over them. With the help of Congressman Bob Aderholt, the Geological Survey of Alabama and other groups, the APS managed to save the property, which was acquired by the state in 2004. It's now open only to scientists and school groups.

The Alabama Department of Conservation has designated it the "Steven C. Minkin Paleozoic Footprint Site," in honor of the amateur geologist who worked tirelessly to preserve it but died in an accident before the March 2005 dedication.

Photographs of the fossils abound at this online database compiled by Ronald J. "Ron" Buta. An illustrated book on the site is Pennsylvanian Footprints in the Black Warrior Basin of Alabama,, edited by Buta, Andrew K. Rindsberg and David C. Kopaska-Merkel. It's $49 (plus $4 shipping) from the Alabama Paleontological Society.

(Thanks to David Kopaska-Merkel and Andy Rindsberg for telling me about this.)


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