Posted by: paulgarner | August 21, 2009

Coconino project and conference reports

If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know that I promised to report on my recent trip to the USA. Well here goes. The first part of the trip involved field research for the Coconino Sandstone project sponsored by the Institute for Creation Research’s National Creation Science Foundation under its Flood-Activated Sedimentation and Tectonics (FAST) research programme. The second half of the trip was spent attending and speaking at the joint annual conference of the Creation Biology Study Group (BSG) and the recently-formed Creation Geology Society (CGS).

I flew out on 14th July from Gatwick to Phoenix AZ via Charlotte NC, a long journey made longer by a two-hour delay leaving London. In Phoenix I met my colleagues on the Coconino project, John and Ray, and a student from John’s university called Matthew. We spent the next five days studying the Coconino in central and northern Arizona, before John and I travelled on to New Mexico to study correlatives of the Coconino Sandstone to the east and also the gypsum dunes of White Sands National Monument.

We’re interested in the Coconino Sandstone because it’s conventionally interpreted as a desert dune deposit, yet it’s right in the middle of the sequence of sedimentary rocks that most creationists believe were deposited during the global flood. I think you can see the problem.

So…for the last few years, we’ve been undertaking extensive field studies, petrographical and other laboratory analyses and reviews of the relevant literature in order to determine the depositional history of this unit. We’ve found lots of interesting and exciting things, many of which have never before been documented from the Coconino Sandstone, and which cast new light on its formation. Summaries of our 2008 and 2009 field research (or at least the parts that I’ve been able to participate in) can be read on the Biblical Creation Ministries website.

From Phoenix I travelled on to Ohio, where I spent a few days with John Whitmore and his family, before heading off to the biology/geology conference in Lousiville KY on 29th July. This annual meeting is really becoming a ‘must’ for anyone interested in cutting edge, peer reviewed creationist research, and the quality of the presentations was even higher this year than previously. You can read a report of the conference talks here. Topics included the formation of caves in Tennessee, the baraminology of ursids and anatids, evolutionary population genetics, the origin of liver toxins in Lantana, and the status of Odontochelys as a transitional form. If you’ve never attended the BSG/CGS conference before, you’re really missing out and ought to get along to next year’s meeting at Truett-McConnell College. Mark the 28th to 30th July 2010 in your diaries now!



  1. I exercised my Google-fu on the Coconino Sandstone and found Brand’s paper about the Coconino’s tracks being made in a watery environment. (I read a couple other papers talking about Brand’s results, and I’m doubtful about his accuracy, but that’s a side issue.) I look forward to reading the finds and study results of your own research.

    I do have a question though – in my Googling I ran across quite a few pages that talked about the footprints found in the Coconino Sandstone formation. Isn’t that a problem? How can dinosaurs of various sizes from large clawed dinosaurs to tiny insects be leaving footprints in the middle of the Flood?

    From what you said, the Coconino was laid down in the middle of the flood – rushing waters laying down sedimentary materials, then the Coconino Sandstone, and then more sedimentary materials.

    Most of the tracks are found inside the Sandstone – how were tracks being made in the sand, covered with sand, more tracks, more sand, more tracks, etc, and then the entire thing lifted up and transported to have sedimentary rocks laid underneath, and then set down, and then have more sedimentary rocks laid on top of it – all of this in the middle of the Flood?

    I read the AiG page that talks about the footprints in the Coconino, and it refers to Brand’s paper about tracks being made in watery conditions (shallow water). However, just slightly lower in the same article it talks about the sand being laid down under significant water depths (300 ft deep) with lots of water motion. Again, how could dinosaurs be leaving footprints at multiple depths of sand while under 300 feet of water with heavy current/tide-like action?

    Maybe I could see little amphibians doing that in shallow water, but many of the tracks in the Coconino are of large creatures with footprints over 12″ long with claws – not something that is casually walking around on the bottom of a flood 300 feet deep. (And wouldn’t the heavy water action that the AiG article suggests created the dune-like formation wipe out any footprints that were being made? Brand’s experiments with water were in shallow and relatively still water conditions.) Is the AiG page contradicting itself – using shallow, still water to cause the footprints and deep rapid water to cause the sandstone formations?

    I realize that’s a lot of questions, but my original, brief question spiraled out of control the more I thought about it.

    • Readers, please note that this message from WebMonk, although dated earlier than those appearing below, actually follows on from them (at least in the order that our discussion has unfolded). That’s because this earlier post ended up in my spam folder for some reason and got overlooked until now. I’ll try to watch out for that in future.

      For now, I don’t have much to add to what I’ve already said about the trackways (see below), except to point out that our latest study has focused less on the ichnological and more on the petrographical and sedimentological aspects of the Coconino. I don’t want to pre-empt things by saying too much at this stage about what we’re finding, but suffice it to say that a marine origin rather than an eolian origin seems better supported.

      By the way, the tracks in the Coconino, even the larger ones, are not those of dinosaurs. The Coconino is a Permian formation and dinosaurs don’t show up in the record until the Upper Triassic.

  2. I was doing some research on the Coconino formation and what AiG says about it. They hold it is a water-formed formation. However, on their pages which talk about it ( ) they have apparently self-conflicting descriptions.

    I have a rule of thumb I use: most people aren’t obviously self-contradictory, so if I see someone who is saying something that seems stupidly self-contradictory to me, then the more likely answer is that I don’t understand. People may contradict themselves, but not just a couple paragraphs apart.

    However, that said, I’ve put several days of looking into this, and as far as I can tell, AiG is indeed contradicting itself within a single article. (the one linked earlier)

    In explaining the Coconino, they have to explain the footprints and the dune-like formation.

    Their explanation of the footprints is that they were made in shallow, relatively sedate water in the sandy bottom. Their explanation of the sand dune formations is that the Flood with 300 ft deep water moving at 2-4 MPH made them. (that may not sound fast, but is actually whitewater-river speed)

    Aren’t these totally contradictory? On one hand the footprints were made in shallow water and the other the dunes (which the footprints are made in) were formed in rushing water 300 feet deep.

    • You’re asking some interesting questions. Our latest research has indeed uncovered multiple lines of evidence pointing to the Coconino being a water-laid, rather than wind-deposited, formation, and to form the large-scale cross bedding in the Coconino the water would have to have been pretty deep and relatively fast flowing. However, we also find trackways of vertebrates (and invertebrates) on many of the dune slip faces and this suggests that the water can’t have been too deep for organisms to be moving about on the substrate. We’re thinking about these things and trying to develop a consistent model that makes sense of the entirety of the data. Of course, water depths and velocities may well have varied considerably during the time that the Coconino was being deposited. Another curious thing is that the vertebrate trackways are only found in the lower half of the formation and are absent higher up the succession (see Brand 1978). Had the strong currents washed the animals away by that point?

  3. That still doesn’t make sense though, at least as far as I can tell. If the upper half was the only part that had the dunes/sand waves, then I could see the possibility of the low-level tracks made in shallow water before the heavy water came.

    But, that’s not the case. The tracks are made in the dunes/sand waves themselves. The tracks are made on the slopes of the dunes/sandwaves which were being formed by the deep, rushing water.

    How does that work? The dunes/sandwaves made by deep, rapid water have tracks in them that are suggested to have been made in shallow, slow-moving water. Having tracks mainly in the lower half doesn’t solve the problem – the tracks still exist in the dune/sandwave formations, and that’s impossible in deep, rushing water.

    Isn’t it?

    Also, I ran across an abstract that mentioned a couple things that might apply here.

    It mentions that the lower level of the Coconino has generally coarser grains and the upper level had generally finer grains which would not preserve footprints nearly as well. The upper layer also has wind ripples, which might indicate a dry environment, or would this be duplicated by water too? I certainly wouldn’t think it would be duplicated by the deep, fast water which you suggest laid down the upper layer.

    It also mentions that there are tracks in the upper portion, about 10% of the total footprints. Not many, but still some.

    Wouldn’t this also be impossible in the bottom of deep, rapid water?

    • Yes, there are a few poorly-preserved trackways in the upper part of the Coconino but the striking fact remains that they’re essentially (~90%) confined to the lower portion. The trend in grain size noted by McKee is interesting, and we’re also looking for patterns of that type. So far we’ve collected hundreds of samples and looked at hundreds of thin sections, so we hope eventually to get a good handle on the petrographic trends that exist.

      Ripple marks may, of course, form by both wind and water action, and the two aren’t always easy to tell apart. They can form in pretty deep water too, as the existence of ripples on the ocean floor demonstrates. We’re also collecting field data on sedimentary structures such as ripples, slumps and bedding styles throughout the Coconino.

      So far the evidence is pointing to a subaqueous origin, and that suggests fairly deep, fast flowing water. However, as you say, we also have the animals making tracks so the postulated environment has to allow for that too. It seems as though the animals might have been washed in, transiently made tracks as they struggled against the currents, before they were washed out again. Some of the data indicates buoyancy of the track-making animals (e.g. sideways drifting trackways, trackways that appear or disappear on undisturbed surfaces).

      We’re grappling with all these issues and trying to make the best sense of everything we have.

  4. I guess my question is different – I’m not really asking for proof that the Coconino was laid down by water, but rather I’m asking about how footprints could exist in it.

    The sand was laid down under 300 feet of rushing water according to the sand waves, but apparently there were dinosaurs (using the term loosely to refer to the amphibian/reptile-y things that were running around) leaving tracks at the same time.

    How did the footprints get there? They would either have to be put on afterward, which considering the sand waves were buried almost immediately upon creation in the middle of the Flood after the animals were dead, seems unlikely.

    So, how did the footprints get in there?

    • I understand your question. However, you can’t think about the Coconino trackways in isolation. Any model of trackway formation has to be consistent with the other data (sedimentological, mineralogical, palaeoenvironmental etc), and which now seems to be pointing away from an eolian origin and towards a marine origin.

  5. Absolutely, a model needs to be consistent. If the data points toward a marine origin of the Coconino, then fine.

    What is that consistent model which explains how the tracks got there?

    As far as I can tell, the marine origin of the Coconino says 300 ft of fast-moving water laid down the Coconino while also laying down the hundreds of feet of soil above and below it, all within 200-300 days.

    What is the consistent model which describes the footprints being made in the middle of all that in the Coconino layer?

    • Good question – what model best fits all the data? We’re still in the fieldwork phase of our project and have at least one more field season to go. We’re only now submitting for publication initial reports of our findings thus far. So it’s a bit premature for us to propose an overarching model that tries to bring it all together – but keep watching this space. Geology is fun, isn’t it?

  6. Maybe I’m stating my question incorrectly. In ANY model, how is it possible for footprints to be left in sand that is being formed into sand waves at the bottom of 300 feet of rushing water? How could ANY model have that happen?

    Whatever working model is finally derived, the footprints can’t be formed like that, or am I mistaken?

    Were they made afterward somehow? This seems doubtful since they were buried under more sediment.

    Did the Flood recede 300 feet, let animals walk to leave tracks, come back, lay down more sediment, recede to allow tracks higher up in the formation, and repeat several times?

    I’m not a geologist, and so I could very well be missing something, but I can’t see what it could be. It seems absolutely impossible for the tracks to exist under ANY model.

    Even if the details are unknown, what could be the general method to allow the footprints?

    • Well, let’s step back a moment and look at the overall picture. We’ve got data from mineralogy, sedimentology, bedding styles and field relationships (not all of it published yet) which points to a marine environment. We also have trackways with features that are consistent with an underwater origin in strong currents (that’s Leonard Brand’s work). But at this stage there are still lots of unanswered questions, such as: where did the sand come from? where did the animals come from? how deep was the water? how fast was it flowing? were the animals actually living in this environment? or were they being washed in transiently? why do the tracks occur almost exclusively in the lower half of the formation? and so on. Whatever the environment was, it seems to have been unusual and it’s difficult to think of a good modern analogue. But anyone wanting to reconstruct the palaeoenvironment has got to take all the data into account. No one said it would be easy, but that’s the challenge facing all of us!

  7. I thought several of those were already answered by studies referenced in the AiG article — the water was 300 feet deep and moving around 4-5 feet per second; the Coconino layer was laid down relatively late in the Flood, after the waters had been raging for months, and 1000+ feet of sedimentation had been ripped up and re-deposited first.

    The land animals were dead by day 40, or thereabouts, long before the Coconino was laid down.

    I’m not looking for a full-bodied explanation, but to my non-geologist eyes, the whole situation seems to be an absolutely, absurdly impossible happening. But, I’m not a geologist, and I’m not aware of many things which might mitigate some of the difficulties.

    What are some of the things I’m apparently missing or wrong about, that would allow for the footprints?

    • The water probably was deep and fast flowing, but I’d like to think more about the constraints actually imposed by the data before drawing firm conclusions. Other assumptions (explicit or implicit) in your post also need thinking through carefully, including your suggestions (a) that the Coconino must have been laid down late in the Flood, (b) that the land animals must have perished by day 40, and (c) that the vertebrates making tracks in the Coconino were air-breathing land animals. Perhaps, perhaps not. And with that, I’ve really said all I want to – for now at least – on the Coconino tracks. I realise you might find that a bit frustrating but there we are.

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