The National Park Service (NPS) wants a 250-million-year-old piece of the fossil record taken from Capitol Reef National Park in Utah five years ago. The fossilized footprints were left by a Triassic-era reptile, and the National Park Service is offering a $1,000 prize to anybody who can assist the NPS in locating the palaeontological item and apprehending the thief or thieves. Between 2017 and 2018, the fossilized footprints are thought to have been cut out of a trackway in Capitol Reef National Park. The theft was discovered after a paleontologist commented on photographs of the fossils uploaded to the Capitol Reef National Park’s Facebook page.
“A visitor remarked on [the post] and felt something was missing from that trackway,” said Shauna Cotrell, the park’s acting chief of interpretation. “It came from a paleontologist who was familiar with the place,” says the narrator. According to the Charlotte Observer, the well-preserved tracks, known as “toe scrapes,” are positive relief castings from track depressions in the underlying mudstone that were eventually filled with fine sands. Despite officials’ requests to “leave no trace” when trekking paths that are home to such rich reserves of natural history, their theft is only one of the innumerable incidences of theft that occur in national parks every year.
While it may appear like pocketing unclaimed keepsakes in the wild is a minor offense, taking relics from their true last resting place has a disastrous impact on their scientific worth. This is why national parks are protected by law, which makes it illegal to take anything from the land. However, the fear of huge penalties and even prison time isn’t always enough to deter individuals from breaking the law. The creation of “conscience heaps” and even museums as NPS sites find themselves with stolen artifacts that can’t be returned to their correct position has seen the emergence of “remorseful returns” from tourists who have stolen from national parks only to later regret it.
This has been a particularly serious problem at Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park (PFNP), where petrified wood is taken on a daily basis. The National Park Service is seeking anonymous or non-anonymous information to assist them hunt down the stolen Triassic-era footprints, with a prize of $1,000 on the table if the guilty person(s) is located and convicted. The National Park Service said in a statement regarding the incident, “Vandalism hurts.” “Capitol Reef National Park contains some of the oldest and most extensive reptile footprints in the western United States. Fossils are extremely uncommon and retain the record of life on Earth.”