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300 Million Year Old Set Of Footprints Found In Hazard

In a rare find that sheds light on early animal life in Kentucky, a Lexington fossil hunter has discovered animal footprints about 300 million years old on a slab of sandstone in Perry County.

Daniel Phelps, president of the Kentucky Paleontological Society, made the unexpected discovery in December 2001 while leading a team on an annual search for plant fossils near two major roads in Hazard.

The discovery of the fossilized footprints, or trackway, was the first of its kind in the region and only the second ever in Kentucky, according to the Courier Journal. Scientists say the footprints date to a time when Kentucky had an equatorial climate similar to that of modernday Indonesia.

The footprints, made on sand at the bottom of a stream that hardened into stone over time, are expected to be valuable to scientists in their study of early animal life in the region.

''This is a significant find and very rare,'' said William Austich, president-elect of the National Paleontological Society. ''It provides one more piece to a giant jigsaw puzzle.''

''We go to the same spot every year, so we got lucky this time,'' Phelps said. ''It tells us there were vertebrate animals around that we didn't know about.''

Phelps has determined that the trackway came from an anthracosaur, a four-legged creature in a transitional stage between an amphibian and a reptile.

Using the skeletal structure of present-day amphibians as a model, Lexington artist Sharon Sammons Cox was able to reconstruct and sketch the approximate size and appearance of the animal.

Phelps described the creature as resembling a ''big-headed lizard with smooth skin.''

Austich said information about the swampy and tropical environment in which the animal lived would be learned with further analysis of the fossil.

Phelps and Austich said that scientists had long suspected that vertebrate life existed in early-day southeastern Kentucky but that there was no concrete proof until now.

Recounting the events of the late autumn day that led to his discovery, Phelps said he wasn't convinced at first that he had found petrified footprints.

Phelps said he went off to look for more plant fossils at the intersection of the Daniel Boone Parkway and Ky. 15 in Hazard before inspecting the stone more closely.

After holding the sandstone at an angle in the sunlight, he detected a pattern of five toes scampering along the surface with a spacing and form similar to the movement of modern creatures.

Using the prints as a starting point, Phelps was able to determine that the ancient animal was a carnivore that swam along a stream bottom searching for small fish, centipedes and millipedes.

''It was fun putting the pieces together,'' Phelps said.

Stephen Greb of the Kentucky Geological Survey said the discovery helps paint a picture of life during the Middle Pennsylvanian Period, also known as the Coal Age.

''That's always exciting,'' Greb said. ''It tells us a lot about a type of animal that was living in the coal swamp environment that was developing in the region at the time.''

Donald Chesnut of the Kentucky Geological Survey and Glen Storrs of the Cincinnati Museum Center co-authored an overview of the discovery with Phelps.

Because Kentucky doesn't have a natural history museum, the secondever discovery of a fossilized footprint in the state will be displayed at the Cincinnati Museum Center, Phelps said.

The first discovery of a fossilized vertebrate footprint in Kentucky came in 1994 in McCreary County. At the time, the find was the oldest-known reptile fossil in North America.

Phelps said he hopes his discovery will motivate other fossil hunters to increase their efforts. ''We now know there's a lot of stuff out there that people need to be looking for,'' he said.