University of Arizona senior Greg Cranwell was walking on campus when, he says, “I was looking down at the flagstone and thought I saw something. I was unsure but I thought ‘what’s it going to hurt if I just look?'” He found he was walking on 270 million-year-old footprints. He says, “I ran to the campus president and told her that we needed to get this thing out immediately and she said that with a little more convincing she would have the slab pulled.”

Ashley Nowe writes in the Arizona Daily Wildcat that Cranwell spent hours looking at photographs of the ancient footprints, comparing them with documented fossil tracks. “It was like comparing apples and oranges,” he says. “It doesn’t take a genius to know if the prints match or not.”

After sending photos of the prints to paleontologists, Cranwell was able to confirm that they belonged to a mammal-like animal called chelichnus duncani, which was about a foot high and reptilian. It lived in northern Arizona during the Permian Period, the last period before the rise of dinosaurs. “I was so excited when Greg showed me the prints that I called over one of my students walking by and said, ‘Here look at these tracks,'” says professor John Zumbrunnen.

Though other chelichnus duncani prints have been found, these are the clearest ones that have ever been discovered. “It was just as though the sand were wet and it happened today,” Cranwell says. “I spent a half an hour just staring at it in awe.” He could see where the tracks changed direction, as well as distinct claw imprints.

Cranwell is a physics major, not a student of paleontology, but despite that, this is his second major discovery. Two years ago, he discovered dinosaur bones 25 miles outside of Tucson. Geoscientist Karl Flessa says, “Similar tracks have been documented, but it is neat that he made the discovery in a decorative slab of flagstone.”

If you learn enough about the past, you can rewrite history.

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