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TORREY, Wayne County — National park rangers are trying to figure out who stole reptile track fossils dating back at least 200 million years from land at Capitol Reef National Park, and they credit an astute social media follower for noticing the previously undetected theft.
The set of reptile track fossils from the Triassic period was removed from a trackway within the park, park officials said in a news release. National Park Service rangers began investigating the theft earlier this year when park officials posted a photo of fossils on the park's Facebook page, said Shauna Cotrell, the park's acting chief of interpretation.
"A visitor commented on (the post) and said they had noticed something was missing from that trackway," she told KSL.com on Wednesday. "It came from a visitor who is a paleontologist and was familiar with the site."
After sifting through photos and paleontological records, park officials determined it was taken within the 2017-2018 timeframe.
Park officials described the fossils as "irreplaceable paleontological resources." The Triassic period ranges as far back as nearly 252 million years ago to about 201 million years ago, and the set of fossils taken came from what Cotrell refers to as a "pre-dinosaur." It was an alligator-like reptile that once roamed the land.
Capitol Reef National Park, much like most of Utah, contains all sorts of prehistoric and historic history. Its paleontological record dates all the way back to at least 280 million years ago. That's why park officials are upset that someone would steal resources from the land.
"Fossils are extremely rare. I mean, just think of all the life that has ever lived on this planet and there are specific conditions that need to happen in order for a fossil to form," Cotrell said. "They do give these glimpses back into life on Earth over these hundreds of millions and billions of years. ... Because they're so rare, it does give scientists a better understanding of what Earth has experienced in the past."
Park officials are hoping someone may have information about the theft or knows who currently has the fossils. They are offering up to a $1,000 reward for information that leads to the prosecution of the responsible party.
People can provide tips anonymously either by calling or texting a tip line set up at 888-653-0009 or through the National Park Service website.