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Kentucky Paleontological Society

The Kentucky Paleontological Society was founded in 1993 for the purpose of promoting interest in and knowledge of the science of paleontology. It is intended that the Society be a network for the exchange of data between professionals and serious amateurs int he field. A newsletter is published monthly, and several field trips are arranged annually.

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Warning: Fake Fossils

The April 14 Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader (page B-3) has an excellent article on some "fossil tracks" that were recently brought to the Kentucky Geological Survey for identification. In the article Dr. Don Chesnut correctly identifies the "tracks" as man-made carvings. I examined these "tracks" in early February and explained to the owner that they were carvings, not actual tracks. These "tracks" were "discovered" in Clay County, Kentucky in Pennsylvanian sediments. They have none of the features one would expect in a genuine trace fossil. The tracks are not genuine for the following reasons:

  1. The "tracks" are extremely flat-bottomed, unlike genuine tracks that would be rounded, and irregular, reflecting the shape of the track maker’s foot.

  2. There is no "mounding" or squish marks as one would expect from the foot of an animal displacing soft mud as it walked. Most of the "tracks" are only a few millimeters deep; rather remarkable for a large creature walking in soft mud.

  3. The edges of genuine tracks would display curved layering from the pressure of the foot The edges of these "tracks" form right angles as if cut or carved. Sometimes this right angle was obscured by sanding (see point 8).

  4. There are no underprints on the bottom of the bedding plane as is common in genuine fossil tracks. (For example, genuine fossil bird tracks from localities such as the Green River Shale show underprints. These bird tracks come from an animal considerably smaller and lighter than the supposed maker of these "tracks").

  5. The "toes" are not dug into the mud deeper than the "heels" as would be expected if the "tracks" were made by a forward-moving animal.

  6. There are no examples of "positive" tracks that would form when mud filled in a trackway. These positives are known as "hyporeliefs" to ichnologists (scientists who study trace fossils).

  7. There is a considerable color difference on some specimens between the bedding plane and the "track". This color difference is probably caused by the carving exposing fresh rock.

  8. Many of the specimens seemed to be purposely "aged" and obscured by not cleaning off all of the mud present and by sanding or sand-papering the specimens. Possibly this was done to obscure tool marks or to round the edges of the carving.

  9. Although all are from the same secret locality, some are on shale, some on siltstone, and others on sandstone. Interestingly, one specimen was on a piece of ripple-marked sandstone. It is odd that one locality would produce tracks from such a variety of lithologies while similar tracks are unknown elsewhere.

  10. Perhaps most basic of all though is the fact that the "tracks" bear only a superficial resemblance to the anatomy of any animal living or extinct; they look stylized or cartoon-like. In short, these are not even particularly good fakes.

It is unlikely that these are Indian petroglyphs since many of the specimens are in soft shale, which would have weathered if exposed for any length of time. Moreover, Indians were unaware of the existence of dinosaurs. There are now more than 10 "specimens". It is unusual that the Indians would only carve one thing again and again.

Surprisingly, only a few days after the newspaper article appeared, these tracks were on display at a Lexington gem and mineral show. There were no labels on the specimens, but there was a toy dinosaur sitting on one of them -- implying that some prehistoric creature had made the tracks.

I probably would have let this matter drop considering it only as an example of human credulity if not for the fact that I suspected that these "tracks" were being sold to local collectors. My suspicions were confirmed when a friend visited a gem and mineral store in Lexington. She noticed the "tracks" and was told it was a mystery as to what they were -- they COULD be dinosaur or some other animal or they COULD be carvings. She was told that scientists at the university were not clear as to their origin and the scientists wanted to know where they came from, possibly so they could have them all to themselves (!). The price was not marked, but she was told "a couple hundred" dollars.

The person who has most of these tracks comes off as sincere; he runs a small museum in Danville, Kentucky. Someone has stated that he has paid as much as $180 for one of the tracks. I do not think he personally carved the tracks; but rather is the victim of a cruel hoax. Unfortunately, the person will not acknowledge that he has been conned and continues to search for someone to authenticate the tracks. Sadly, until someone comes forward and admits to having been cheated, there is nothing that can be done except to educate collectors.

-- Dan Phelps, President, Kentucky Paleontological Society