Skip to content

Rare Extinct Jurassic Mammal Relative Revealed as Lake Powell Waters Recede

    Lake Powell, a vast and ever-changing reservoir in the southwestern United States, is known for its stunning natural beauty and recreational opportunities. However, it is also a repository of hidden secrets from our planet’s distant past. Recently, the lake’s fluctuating shoreline unveiled a truly extraordinary find – the “remarkably rare” fossils of a long-extinct mammal relative that once roamed North America approximately 180 million years ago. This revelation, made by National Park Service (NPS) officials, has sent ripples through the scientific community, and the discovery itself is a testament to the serendipity and the power of nature’s ever-evolving landscapes.

    The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (NRA) in southern Utah is a place of stunning geological formations, deep canyons, and remarkable landscapes. However, it’s not just the sheer beauty of the area that captivates scientists and explorers. In this region, you’ll find the Navajo Sandstone, a geologic formation composed of thick layers of sandstone that hint at an ancient desert of colossal sand dunes. This sandstone is part of what is now known as the Glen Canyon Group and plays host to a fascinating story that has taken millions of years to reveal.

    An artwork portraying a scene from the Early Jurassic within the Navajo Sandstone desert, conserved at the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Collaborating with artist Brian Engh, paleontologists aimed to create a precise representation of the elusive and uncommon tritylodonts. (Image credit: NPS / Brian Engh)

    Within the folds of the Navajo Sandstone lie the secrets of a long-lost world. These secrets are etched in stone, telling the tales of creatures that once thrived in this arid land. Tritylodontids, a group of near-mammalian reptiles, were among the denizens of this desert during the Triassic and Jurassic periods. These warm-blooded, herbivorous creatures coexisted with early mammals and survived the mass extinction event that marked the end of the Triassic period. Their story is one of resilience and adaptation, a narrative that unfolds from the imprints of the past.

    The discovery of tritylodontid fossils in the Navajo Sandstone represents a breakthrough in paleontology. These fossils, dating back to 180 million years ago, offer a rare glimpse into a world long gone. These creatures, ranging in size from rat-sized to wolf-sized, provide an invaluable window into the history of life on Earth. Their presence in this geologic formation, which was once a desert of towering sand dunes, paints a vivid picture of a bygone era.

    What makes this discovery even more exceptional is the setting in which it occurred. The site is usually submerged beneath the tranquil waters of Lake Powell, making it accessible for only a brief period each year. This unique blend of geology, hydrology, and timing made it a true race against nature. The scientists and paleontologists who made this discovery had just 120 days to recover the fossils before the water levels rose once again. This was no small feat; they had to extract hundreds of pounds of rock that encapsulated the precious bones and skeletons. Now, these invaluable specimens await scanning and comprehensive analysis before taking their rightful place in the collections of the Prehistoric Museum in Price, Utah.

    The significance of this discovery cannot be overstated. NPS officials have described it as “one of the most important fossil vertebrate findings in the United States this year.” These tritylodontid fossils are not just ancient relics; they are pieces of a puzzle that could help scientists unlock the mysteries of the past. They offer clues about how early mammal relatives managed to survive the mass extinction that marked the end of the Triassic period and how they continued to evolve and adapt during the subsequent Jurassic period.

    The Glen Canyon region, with its breathtaking landscapes and hidden geological treasures, is a treasure trove of discovery. In addition to the tritylodontid fossils found in the Navajo Sandstone, paleontologists have uncovered a rare bone bed in the slightly older Kayenta Formation, which is situated approximately 60 miles (100 kilometers) southeast of the Glen Canyon NRA. While details about this particular discovery have not been fully disclosed, it raises questions about the broader paleontological significance of the region.

    As we delve deeper into the past and unearth the secrets hidden beneath the Earth’s surface, the Glen Canyon area is not the only place where nature has unveiled its historical treasures. In July, for instance, dropping water levels in Texas’ Paluxy River revealed a stunning array of 70 dinosaur tracks. Among them was one of the world’s longest dinosaur tracks, discovered at Dinosaur Valley State Park. These revelations serve as a reminder that our planet holds an abundance of mysteries, many of which are concealed beneath the surface, waiting to be unearthed by a curious and determined scientific community.

    The story of Lake Powell and its prehistoric inhabitants is one that continues to unfold. It’s a testament to the dynamic and ever-evolving nature of our planet. The shifting sands of time, quite literally in the case of the Glen Canyon NRA, have preserved these remarkable fossils, allowing us to peer into the distant past. With each discovery, we gain a deeper understanding of the intricate web of life that has shaped our world over millions of years.

    As we reflect on this incredible find, we are reminded of the importance of preserving and protecting our natural wonders and the vital work of organizations like the National Park Service. These agencies play a crucial role in safeguarding our natural and cultural heritage, ensuring that future generations can continue to explore, learn, and be inspired by the remarkable treasures our planet has to offer.

    The discovery of tritylodontid fossils in the Navajo Sandstone of Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is a remarkable testament to the wonders of our planet’s geological and biological history. It sheds light on the lives of ancient creatures that lived and thrived in a vastly different world, and it underscores the significance of preserving and protecting our natural treasures.