NMSU students find fossil goldmine

Donyelle Kesler


An ordinary afternoon at White Sands National Monument turned into a day of discovery for two New Mexico State

New Mexico State University students Drew Gentry (left) and Christopher Franco are working as biological research assistants at White Sands where they discovered more than 500 prehistoric prints on a section of land previously dismissed as unimportant. (Courtesy photo)

University students who stumbled upon an undiscovered stretch of more than 500 prehistoric prints on a section of land previously dismissed as unimportant.

Senior Christopher Franco and junior Drew Gentry are working as biological research assistants at White Sands. Their job: to document the known mammoth prints in the area. In late May after just two weeks on the job as interns, they made the major find while taking a break from paperwork to stretch their legs.

The pair discovered large impressions in linear sequences on land used for the last 100 years for cattle grazing.

“The only area that we were allowed to go without supervision was a small, unremarkable stretch of desert across the highway from the Visitor’s Center,” Gentry a biology major said. “We drove less than a mile into the desert and picked a random place to stop and after walking a very short distance from the vehicle, we began to notice large circular to ovoid impressions in linear sequences stretching out in front of us.”

“I noticed Drew stop suddenly while staring at the ground,” Franco, who is majoring in geography, said. “I began walking toward him when I noticed I had just about stepped on a shallow, circular impression. Looking to my left and right, I realized that it was a trackway and Drew was staring at a parallel set.”

Almost immediately, Franco and Gentry knew they had found something significant. But, over the next few weeks, archaeologists at White Sands were adamant that what the students found were only cow prints.

“The impressions were clearly significant prints of some kind but being that neither of us were paleoinchnologists, we were unsure as to what we’d actually found,” Gentry said.

Recently, the students got the answers they were looking for from geologist Jonena Hearst from Guadalupe Mountains National Park, who examined the prints.

“Dr. Hearst has immeasurable amounts of experience documenting and identifying trackways,” Franco said. “She was ecstatic about visiting the area and was able to confirm for us that the site is definitely from the Pleistocene era and that the larger prints were Mammuthus, commonly known as Columbian mammoth. As for the smaller prints, she was even more excited as per her conclusion; they are Camelops hesternus, an ancient species of camel.”

Franco and Gentry are now the sole researchers for the site until mid-August. Under monument resource manager David Bustos, the two are in the process of documenting each individual print, including measuring, photographing and tracing the prints onto Mylar sheets. Already they have documented more than 500 prints. The pair is also working with Vincent Santucci, a senior geologist for the National Park Service, Washington D.C. Support Office.

Recently, the students discovered a new sole print that has remained in exceptional condition. The tracks are preserved in gypsum layers and are quite fragile. Once exposed from beneath the sand, the tracks weather rapidly. This spurred Franco and Gentry to collect the sample.

“The print is a feline print, approximately 22 centimeters across, leading us to believe it is possibly Smilodon – the saber-toothed tiger,” Franco said.

While the internship ends in August, Franco and Gentry are hoping to stay involved with the project.

“Several of the higher ups in administration at the Geological Society of America and at White Sands may intervene and establish us as year-round researchers on a part-time basis and are working to generate research methods and practices that can be handed over to new researchers should the need arise,” Gentry said. “Hopefully, given the magnitude of the find, Chris and I will be kept on as part of a continuing research initiative based on the trackways.”

Franco will receive his bachelor’s in geography with a focus on Geographic Information Systems and plans to pursue a paramedic certification and a possible master’s in geography.

“Prior to this internship, I was leaning more toward Search and Rescue or intelligence contracting for the government,” Franco said. “Now, I am considering a minor in geology/biology and continuing with the paleontology. I didn’t realize it was this fascinating.”

Gentry is seeking his second bachelor’s degree in biology and is planning to continue into graduate school and pursue a doctorate in paleovertebrate zoology.

“Despite having a degree in marketing/management, paleontology has always been my greatest passion,” Gentry said.

“After completing my degree and spending three years managing a renewable fuels manufacturing firm in north Alabama, I decided that business was not what I wanted to do with my life. My first step will be receiving my bachelors in biology at NMSU, hopefully in about a year and a half. It may have been a roundabout way of getting here, but I’ve never been happier.”


“EYE ON RESEARCH” is provided by New Mexico State University. This week’s feature was written by Donyelle Kesler of University Communications.



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