On Dec. 8, 2020, after two weeks of quarantine in Seoul, the South Korean government awarded its presidential medal to CU Denver’s professor emeritus of geology, Martin Lockley, for his contributions to dinosaur tracking.
For almost 40 years, Lockley has spearheaded what he calls the CU Denver Dinosaur Trackers Research Group. Despite having worked regularly in South Korea since 1987, Lockley devoted much of his career to tracking dinosaurs in Colorado and Utah. His activities in the wild west include being a founding member of Dinosaur Ridge in Jefferson County, as well as involvement in the creation of dinosaur museums at two sites in Utah: the Moab Giants Dinosaur Park and Museum and the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site.
In the Mesozoic Age of dinosaurs, there was no Colorado, South Korea, or Utah. Had you left early enough on day one of the Jurassic Period, you might have walked from western North America to the east coast just in time to cross over into Europe and on to Asia before the Atlantic opened up. Herein lies part of the global interconnection story bequeathed to us by our dinosaurian ancestors. Though it may appear to be purely fun and games, Lockley notes that tracking dinosaurs is serious “environmental” business.
“Dinosaur track sites are fragments of the ancient landscape that have survived to become part of the modern landscape,” said Lockley. “I call it ‘sacred ground,’ because this land is protected in almost every nation, with as much reverence as we afford to geological, archeological, and historical sites, such as the Delicate Arch, Stonehenge, or the Roman
What Lockley and his colleagues do, beside measuring the size, step, and stride of dinosaurs, is work with states, provinces, and governments to preserve important sites such as state parks, national monuments, UNESCO Global Geoparks, or World Heritage sites.
“What is known as ‘geoheritage’ knows no international boundaries,” said Lockley. “Those working in the field know that a Colorado paleontologist may have as much enthusiasm for protecting a Korean site as a Korean paleontologist has for protecting a site in Colorado or Utah.”
South Korean trackers visited what is now known as Dinosaur Ridge, near Red Rocks Ampitheatre, in 1987. The National Science Foundation gave Lockley and his students a grant to kickstart dinosaur tracking research in South Korea in 1988. Since then, South Korean trackers secured funds for three years of study of tracks in western Colorado and Utah, while at home they created multiple national Natural Monuments built around spectacular dinosaur track sites. Several such sites have been nominated as potential World Heritage sites.
“When I say the dinosaur sites were spectacular, I mean that they were as large as basketball courts, with between 2,000 and 8,000 fossil footprints, all perfectly preserved,” said Lockley. “It included tracks of birds, frogs, lizards, mammals, and even a giant, bipedal crocodile, all at least 100 million years old.”
Coincidentally, these tracks are about the same age as the tracks from Dinosaur Ridge, or from the new Mill Canyon Dinosaur track site, near Moab’s Canyonlands Regional Airport, which South Korean scientists helped to excavate and study.
Lockley was the first paleontologist, and only the second person not from South Korea, to win the presidential award, but he credits his South Korean colleagues for nominating him and considers their work a joint effort. Lockley and his colleagues, ranging from local amateurs, Dinosaur Ridge enthusiasts, and Moab desert rats, to internationally known trackers, continue to research and write on multiple fossil footprint sites in South Korea, Colorado, and Utah as well as other regions.
“The fossil footprint record is a rich tapestry of ancient life, not the record of death and decay,” said Lockley. “Instead, it is the record of the vibrant day-to-day life of dynamic living animals.”