By Dave Tucker October 19, 2010.
A brand new hallway display at Western Washington University prominently features the 11-inch foot track of Diatryma, a 7-fo0t-tall flightless bird that roamed the river plains of western Washington in the Eocene, 50 million years ago. The track was recovered from debris exposed in the Racehorse Creek landslide of January, 2009. (Added November 14, 2012: the sceintific paper by George Mustoe, Dave Tucker, and Keith Kemplin describing the tracks can be dowloaded free here: Giant Eocene Bird Footprints paper, Palaeontology
The display was built by WWU paleontologist George Mustoe, well-known for his previous work on fossil plants and tracks from the Chuckanut Formation. It is just inside the main 1st floor entrance of the Environmental Studies Building (ES) on the university campus. George made a pair of interpretive signs to go along with the track; one tells about Diatryma, the other describes the nip-and-tuck helicopter rescue, which was
funded by alumni donations to the Geology Department, and carried out by Columbia Helicopters of Portland. In addition to the giant bird foot track, the sandstone slab has a trackway left by a small shore bird, and a single track of a heron-sized bird. If you look carefully, right down the middle are several faint foot tracks of a fox-sized extinct horse, Hyracotherium. You’ll have to look closely to see these last tracks; we didn’t notice them in the field, but the lighting in ES is just right to reveal them. Also on display, just around the corner, is a controversial ‘foot track’ originally claimed to be from a Diatryma, found in the Green River gorge in 1992. The geology department has been the repository for this curious specimen due to doubts about whether it is really a foot track, and if so, is it Diatryma or some unknown bird. You can read more about this track here. Lovely latex reproductions of large palm leaf fossils are now hanging on the wall just past the elevator doors. These were also found in the landslide debris, but the originals are too fragile to be displayed. More exhibits on Chuckanut fossils are planned for this part of the building.
While you are there, check out the geology displays on the other floors of the building. The ground floor has spectacular mineral in cabinets; the entire second floor corridor is lined with fossils, including giant Pleistocene bears and mammoth trunks, posters and rocks from the Cascades, displays from Bellingham-area coal mines, and many more wonderful Chuckanut fossils, including more animal tracks. Don’t miss the display case filled with ‘coprolites’, which are fossilized dung; this one is a big hit with kids. The displays are open year round, all day, and are very popular with school groups. All are welcome.
More information about the giant bird can be found on pages of this website here; an account of the discovery and helicopter rescue of the track was published in July, 2010 in the Bellingham Herald (picked up all around the world, and there are nice photos of the recovery on John Scurlock’s photo gallery, too. National Public Radio covered the Diatryma story; their website includes an audio clip. Northwest Geology Field Trips has more about the Chuckanut Formation, its fossils, and geology here, including a field trip to see the fossils of the landslide here, and a more extensive overview of the giant landslide, with directions for your own field trip, here.