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Dinosaur track site doubles exhibit space

May 11 2016

At first, the hectic surfaces of the uncovered rocks at the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm can take time to appreciate fully.

Mighty slabs of overturned sandstone reveal footprints, many of them partial, amidst a cluttered collage of other scratches, ripples, depressions and other marks, and visitors must pay attention to keep up with the signage and other literature to understand how a 200 million-year-old lake edge teeming with dinosaurs ended up frozen in time and on display in a St. George museum.

Now, thanks to a new exhibit, a raised walkway dubbed the Lake Dixie Discovery Trail, visitors can walk out over the original track surface, see it in its breadth and appreciate what they are actually seeing in that jumbled collection of tracks, scratches and claw marks — a remarkable snapshot of the complex ecosystem that developed along the ancient lake edge.

Standing upon a section of the Lake Dixie Discovery Trail, which opened Saturday, museum curator and paleontologist Andrew Milner points to some of the marks, describing some of the museum’s most rare and unusual tracks, details that until now had never been truly visible to the public.

“We’ve been finding new stuff as we go along,” he said, pointing to some tiny marks just under the boardwalk that have now been confirmed as prints and matched to others nearby. The original map of the site included more than 1,200 tracks.

Massive dinosaur tracks, so well-preserved that the actual skin texture can be seen, scamper across the surface. The remains of a massive tree stump sits nearby. Tiny waves in the rock are remains of where water once rippled against the sand.

One track now made more visible is a rare impression left by the hands and hind-quarters of a meat-eating theropod dinosaur as it sat along the shoreline, then stood and walked off across the mud.

“Essentially, the remains of an entire ancient ecosystem are preserved at the (museum) and around Washington County, Utah,” according to the book “Tracks in Deep Time: The St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm,” written by Milner and his colleague Jerald Harris, the director of paleontology at Dixie State University and an adviser to the museum.

The concentration of tracks, in such large number and made by so many different creatures — dinosaurs, mammals, insects, plants, fish — has made the museum famous among paleontologists worldwide. The hope among museum organizers is the Lake Dixie Discovery Trail gives residents more access to everything the site has to offer, said Liz Freedman Fowler, executive director of the museum.

“Until now, visitors kind of had to just stand on the edge and look across and you couldn’t really see some of the most impressive parts of it,” she said.

The boardwalk was built out over the track site to preserve the surface underneath, with supports designed to disturb the actual rock as little as possible, Freedman Fowler said.

“The Lake Dixie Discovery Trail is a major expansion for the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site,” she said. “It nearly doubles the exhibit space in our museum, and shares our most important fossils with our visitors.”

The museum has seen a number of additions in recent years meant to make it more visitor-friendly, including a series of improvements aimed at children. More hands-on exhibits allow visitors to touch and feel some embedded fossils, and a kid-friendly outdoor area now includes shade structures, a track-making area and a dig box with replica fossils and more hiding under the sand.

The site was first discovered in 2000, when local optometrist Sheldon Johnson uncovered well-preserved tracks on the bottom side of large piece of sandstone he was removing while preparing the area for development. Thousands of other discoveries were soon made, and instead of continuing to develop the property, Johnson set aside some of his property.

The museum is open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

It is located at 2180 E. Riverside Drive in St. George, near the intersection of Riverside and Mall Drive. For more information, visit www.UtahDinosaurs.com or call 435-574-3466.



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