Written in the Rocks of Time
from the book, "Petrified Lightning"

Petrified Lightning

Written in the Rocks of Time

Scientists have been able to learn much about the physical characteristics of fossil animals from their bones and other hard body parts. Lifestyle, however, is often more evident from footprints. Fossil footprints record events that occurred thousands, even millions of years ago.

In Australia a series of recently discovered dinosaur tracks tell of a prehistoric stampede. The tracks show a group of dinosaurs that first were milling around, probably grazing. Abruptly the dinosaurs turned and began to move in a single direction. They were obviously running, for the tracks become deeper and farther apart. We know their lives were at stake. Superimposed on their tracks are those of a large carnivorous dinosaur. Whether the carnivore's attack was successful will never be known, since the tracks showing the final scene of the hunt have eroded. This event occurred over 120 million years ago!

On a limestone cliff outside the city of San Antonio, Texas, is a natural cave. About 50,000 years ago it was the lair for a family of saber—toothed cats. The floor of the cave is generously strewn with many bones from their victims. Their favorite and most accessible food must have been young mastodons, because almost all of the bones were immature specimens of these massive creatures. Intermingled are a few bones of saber—toothed cats. Those who died were always included in the menu of those that remained.

No animal prints exist to suggest how the huge ice age cat managed to separate young prey from their enormous mastodon mothers. The answer may have been found by animal behaviorists researching African wildlife. Frequently they observed that a lone lion stalking a herd of elephants would keep a watchful eye on the very young. A baby elephant, inexperienced in self—preservation, often wanders playfully away from the watchful eyes of its feeding mother. If its wandering takes it near the concealed lion, its fate is quite predictable. The attacking cat rushes in, grabs the young elephant, turns it over on its back, and tears at the soft underside, wounding it fatally. Then the lion retreats into the bushes. By the time the furious mother elephant rushes to the aid of her infant, she is usually too late. She may linger for a while near the dead infant, but when she leaves, the lion carries off its prize.

Clearly the saber—toothed cat could have captured its young prey in the same way. Baby mastadons were doubtless abundant, easy prey and provided a generous meal for the pride.

This practice is quite old among carnivores, as evidenced by a finding near Camp Verde, Arizona, in 1958. A geologist was busily mapping the geologic rock formation known as the Verde Lake Beds when he uncovered an area that appeared to have been a large water hole in earlier times. Several hundred fossilized footprints, mainly of deer, horses, camels, and wolves, were impressed into the rock. The animals that came to this water hole to drink left their footprints in the area, which was then soft mud. The weather on that particular day must have been warm and dry, because all of the prints were baked by the sun. They hardened and were buried by the subsequent deposition of silt and sand. Eons later they were exposed near the surface by subsequent erosion.

The geologist was dazzled by the abundance of fossilized footprints. Of particular interest were four sets of adult mastodon footprints that emerged from the water hole. The prints measured nearly 12 inches in diameter, identifying them as prints of gigantic beasts. Directly in the middle of one set of adult tracks were the prints of a baby mastodon. These were doubtless the tracks of a mother mastodon followed by her infant.

However, a set of tracks of a saber—toothed cat was also present. These tracks approached the baby tracks at a slight angle and curved until they were superimposed directly on the tracks of the small mastodon. It takes very little imagination to re—create the scene. The baby mastodon, lagging behind the mother, was being stalked by the carnivore. The mother was no doubt oblivious of the danger to her offspring. The diagonal tracks indicate that the cat was closing in during its stalk. When it positioned itself directly on the tracks of the baby, the evidence is clear that it was preparing to attack. The stalk was over and the huge saber—toothed cat charged. This happened one day seven million years ago.