Laetoli Footprints In Danger

Rex Dalton, in Nature, noted that the 3.7 million year old fossil footprint tracks at Laetoli are in danger due to erosion caused by heavier than normal rainfall:

The protective layer now in place was constructed by specialists from the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles. A layer of dirt had been placed over the footprints by researchers such as Leakey and White. But acacia seeds weren’t sifted out of the soil, so trees started growing, threatening to tear apart the layer of hardened volcanic ash. Getty conservationists Neville Agnew and Martha Demas removed the old layer and growth, covered the prints with a special fabric mat designed to limit water intrusion, then covered this with cleaned soil and rocks. This worked well until the past couple of years, when increased rains filled the surrounding run-off ditches with silt, leading to erosion exposing the mat’s edges. All agree that the mat needs to be covered swiftly, in case, for example, local tribespeople attempt to remove it for other uses. But a long-term solution is still up for debate.

Tim White and Terry Harrison think the trackways should be cut out of the hillside and installed in a museum. Others propose building a museum at the site. Let’s hope something is done before it is too late!

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2 Responses

  1. For a comparable case, consider the Lark Quarry dinosaur trackways near Winton, Queensland, Australian (see http://www.dinosaurtrackways.com.au/). Leaving the trackway buried, or reburying them (with or without Acacia seeds) is obviously a temporary solution; doing it over and over again as new problems arise will degrade the site as badly as anything else. If the site can be made easily accessible it will be best to leave them in situ and build a museum around them, as at Lark Quarry. This provides conservation while exposing them permanently to allow detailed study (with successive new generations of laser scanners etc.) as well as a site of tourist pilgrimage. If that’s unsafe (or if the carbon cost or erosion due to tourist traffic to a remote site are excessive), I’d back the removal idea. We have some similar issues with the Riversleigh fossil field, but the trump in our case is that the fossils can only be properly exposed and studied in the laboratory (e.g. here in Mount Isa, the nearest significant town 250 km away), using methods that can’t be applied in the field.

  2. According to the article the location is so remote that guarding and maintaining any facility built would be difficult. I’m not sure I completely buy that and I would much prefer to see a facility built over them.

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