While the stunning geological formations of southern Utah’s national parks are internationally renowned, it’s not every day that the fossil of a prehistoric fish is discovered in these famous red rocks. Such a discovery was recently made in Zion National Park according to officials from the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site.
The 200 million-year-old fossil discovered is thought to be that of an early Jurassic coelacanth, a genus of lobe-finned fish believed to be extinct until 1938 when living specimens were discovered off the coast of South Africa.
Scientists-in-parks paleontology assistant Conner Bennett explained to St. George News that comparing fossils to similar discoveries in different areas helps paleontologists better understand species diversity in antiquity.
“It is an important find that enhances our understanding of fish and the environment in which they lived millions of years ago,” Bennett said. “This fossil is a promising discovery indicating that conditions were right for preserving body fossils in the Whitmore Point Member of the Moenave Formation at Zion National Park [and] suggests more body fossils may be found in the rocks of Zion.”
According to Andrew Milner, paleontologist and curator of the St. George Discovery Site, there is one major disadvantage to the discovery: it was discovered in a national park.
Because national parks are on public land, excavation projects in these areas are heavily regulated and restricted. As Milner said, “You can’t just go walk in and start digging, ripping open and uncovering big surfaces in national parks.”
Understanding the world as it is today depends heavily on understanding how it used to be. That’s why, in spite of the aforementioned restrictions, the National Park Service continues to work with various other organizations in order to further scientific understanding of parks, their histories and the natural world.