A group of amateur paleontologists is racing to save a site extraordinarily rich in animal tracks that date to the early diversification of reptiles, some 310 million years ago. Experts say the site, part of an open-face coal mine about 50 kilometers northwest of Birmingham, Alabama, is the best in the world among rocks that old. The owners of the mine want to donate the site, but last week a state commission ordered them to begin bulldozing it within 30 days to comply with a federal law requiring that abandoned surface mines be restored.
The tracks record the movements of amphibians, millipedes, horseshoe crabs, fish, and perhaps reptiles in a shallow estuary. "It's at a crucial time in vertebrate evolution, because reptiles are first appearing," says Anthony Martin of Emory University in Atlanta. The site has been investigated since 2000 by a group of fossil enthusiasts, now called the Alabama Paleontological Society. The society has posted more than 2000 pictures of tracks on its Web site, hosted a scientific meeting, and is preparing a monograph. Because so many specimens have been found, the site could help researchers discover how the tracks were made, adds Hartmut Haubold of Martin Luther University and Geiseltal Museum in Halle, Germany. "It will open the door for a realistic understanding of hitherto enigmatic fossil footprints," he predicts.
Reclamation would stop that work in its tracks. Under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, the mining company must restore the landscape to its former condition as much as possible. That would mean bulldozing the site--covering the fossil-rich layer with 10 meters of fill. Since mining ceased in 2000, the company has done that with other areas, leaving aside about 3 hectares so the paleontologists could continue collecting.
Last week, after a citizen argued that the cliff face is a public hazard, the state commission ordered the company to reclaim the fossil-rich area. The society says that safety isn't an issue. "It would be fenced off," says Prescott Atkinson, a pediatrician at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, who is leading the society's lobbying efforts. The company plans to appeal the decision this week. If the appeal isn't granted, the amateurs plan to ask the circuit court to intervene.
The society's monograph 
Much more about trace fossils, from Anthony Martin