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Rare Ice Age Footprints Discovered in New Mexico

Rebecca Wiles of White Sands National Monument examines the soil where ancient Ice Age footprints are constantly being discovered.
Nicole Chavez
Rebecca Wiles of White Sands National Monument examines the soil where ancient Ice Age footprints are constantly being discovered.
Prehistoric Prints

Scientists at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico are studying hundreds of rare mammalian footprints discovered by a pair of college students. The prints date back to the Ice Age, and are providing clues about what the southwest region was like before the last great extinction.

The students made the discovery along a barren desert terrain embellished with scrabbly saltbrush and ankle high tufts of yellow sacaton. Just across from the site are 275 square miles of pristine white sand - a diamond in the rough Tularosa basin of southern New Mexico. The dunes are the heart of White Sands National Monument, where half a million tourists head each year.

The footprint site is in a place park rangers prefer to keep secret: The fragile impressions can easily be damaged by humans.


The students discovered 700 prehistoric animal prints that are between 20,000 to 40,000 years old. They are believed to belong to large mammals, including mammoths, camels, dire wolves and saber tooth cats. While most of the prints are shallow impressions that erode easily, others are encased in sugar-colored gypsm, a key mineral found throughout the park.

“The gypsum...forms like a very hard cake or almost like a Plaster of Paris mold, and so once it's dry it's very easy to move,” said David Bustos, a biologist at White Sands National Monument.

One of the mammoth prints is now on display at the White Sands visitor's center.

Vincent Santucci, a senior geologist with the National Park Service in Washington, D.C said there are thousands of dinosaur prints scattered throughout the country but for some unknown reason, Ice Age prints are far rarer. There are only a few dozen sites in the southwest. Their rarity adds to their scientific value, especially since Ice Age creatures were the last to go extinct before the evolution of modern man.

“Events that occurred during the Ice Ages help to shape how our modern plants and animals and their diversity is today,” Santucci said.


These footprints may provide clues into the mysteries of climate change. A study published in the journal Nature earlier this month concludes that climate change was one factor that led to the dying off of many Ice Age giants. These are the kind of studies that fascinate paleontology student Drew Gentry, who is one of the interns who discovered the prehistoric prints at White Sands.

“We went out every day for two to three weeks for four to five hours a day and didn't find anything. And so it wasn't until about a month into the internship that we actually found something noteworthy,” Gentry said.

Gentry's been collecting rocks and dreaming of dinosaurs since he was a kid growing up in Alabama. Now that he's in New Mexico he's reveling in a largely unexplored territory rich with fossilized treasures. Just last year quarry workers in a gravel site near Las Cruces discovered a 1.6 million year old mastodon skull in excellent condition. Gentry was called in to assist after the find. The skull is one of only 5 so far discovered on the planet.

“The whole joy in being a paleontologist is that one time out of the thousand when you actually do find something and it makes all the other times when you didn't find anything worth while,” Gentry said.

The mastodon skull will be put on display at the university within a year. The research conducted on the mammal footprints in White Sands will be presented at a paleontology conference in North Carolina next October.