National Park

An examination of the rich paleontological history of Grand Canyon National Park



Pleistocene open forest scene from the western part of the Grand Canyon / Painting by artist Julius Csotonyi

Once upon a time, long ago, cheetahs would hunt mountain goats at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and sloths were part of the wildlife community, and sharks, not humpback chub, swam there as well.

This surprising past of a landscape considered today as arid, rugged and unforgiving has been brought to light thanks to the largest paleontological inventory specific to the park in the history of the National Park Service. Vince Santucci, the Park Service’s senior paleontologist, took inspiration from the centenary of Grand Canyon National Park in 2019 to sift through more than 160 years of paleontological studies in the park’s landscape that began with the first fossils collected at Diamond Creek during the Ives expedition in 1858.

“The Grand Canyon’s paleontological inventory and similar work in other parks reward us all with new and more comprehensive information about prehistoric life and the ancient world in which they lived,” Santucci said.

The multi-year effort to study the fossil record of Grand Canyon National Park, led by the National Park Service and the Utah Geological Association, concluded with the recent publication of Grand Canyon National Park Centennial Paleontological Resource Inventory: A Center for Fossil Discovery and Research.

The publication documents over 1.2 billion years of paleontological history in the park and has uncovered a rich fossil record. The study inventoried flora and fauna throughout the millennia and found fossils as impressive as those of land sloths from Shasta, mountain goats from Harrington, ancient sharks and the now extinct American cheetah – which lived. in the limestone caves of the Grand Canyon during the last ice age.

Skull of an extinct mountain goat that roamed the Grand Canyon / NPS

Through the pages of the inventory, readers are introduced to scientists and researchers, from John Strong Newberry and Lieutenant Joseph C. Ives in 1858 to today’s geologists and paleontologists working in the canyon, ”Earle wrote. Spam in a section of the collection. discussing the history of paleontological research in the park. “As these highlights from the past three decades show, paleontology, the science of the long dead, is alive and well at the Grand Canyon. It’s important to realize that it was quite convenient that most of the canyon’s earliest fossil collections were sent to the Smithsonian Institution, but as the 20th century progressed more and more collections began to arrive. in universities and independent museums. It has become all the more urgent for federal resource managers to keep abreast of the ever-growing and widely dispersed collections that are made on federal lands. The means are at hand – thanks to the hard work of individuals, of course, but also thanks to the use of these documentary documents as digital databases.

Santucci said understanding of the Grand Canyon’s fossil record will continue to advance with new discoveries every season in the field.

The objective of the inventory was to identify the scope, importance, distribution and management issues associated with fossils in the park. The NPS has compiled paleontological resource information for the public, managers, and park staff to better understand the park’s non-renewable paleontological resources and to aid in future park planning and decision-making, which can be linked to fossils in the park.

The park’s extensive stratigraphic record shows the canyon was home to ancient sharks, Permian plants, proto-reptiles and now extinct mammals as the environment shifted from hospitable oceans to harsh deserts for hundreds of millions of years.

Thanks to the collective contributions of National Park Service staff, park partners and other paleontologists, this new paleontological inventory lists fossil specimens in the park’s museum collection and will contribute to further educational and interpretive efforts on the palaeontology of the Grand Canyon.