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Friday, July 17, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Track Is Hoax, Paleontologists Say -- Expert On Prehistoric Bird Casts Doubt On Discovery In State Park

A giant track of a prehistoric 7-foot bird found in Flaming Geyser State Park near Black Diamond is probably a hoax, paleontologists have concluded.

Allison Andors, an expert on the flightless bird called Diatryma, said his close examination of the sandstone track convinced him it isn't a fossil.

Andors, who is based at the Museum of Natural History in New York, said his conclusion is a "disappointment" because the 50-million-year-old, 350-pound bird has never been found farther west than Wyoming. A track would have been one of the most significant fossil finds in Western Washington.

A number of factors "are telling evidence that the footprint is bogus and that it was manufactured by man," Andors wrote in a summary report. But he added the reason for such a hoax remains baffling: "It is difficult to understand why it was not reported immediately rather than having been left for someone else to discover."

Andors and Dan Meatte, archaeologist for Washington State Parks, said they don't think John Patterson, the Maple Valley man who discovered the footprint this spring in the Green River Gorge, was behind the hoax.

"Nothing in his handling of the matter suggests he made it," Andors said of the former Boeing employee and inventor who carves wood for a hobby.

"I don't pretend to have said the last word on it," the paleontologist cautioned when interviewed from New York. "I said seeing was believing, and now that I've seen it, I don't believe it. (But) given that our conclusions are tentative, the prudent thing would be for the Burke Museum to keep it" and let other paleontologists examine it if they wish.

Patterson, meanwhile, said he is frustrated by Andors' conclusion and believes the visiting paleontologist was swayed by University of Washington paleontologist John Rensberger, who was skeptical from the beginning.

Patterson still believes the track is genuine and wants it back from the UW's Burke Museum to show other scientists. He complained Andors never talked to him while in Seattle, only to Rensberger, and that no scientists have examined the shale cliff in the gorge to see if any other fossils are present.

Rensberger could not be reached for comment. Meatte of Washington State Parks said that, while his agency doesn't think the print is real, it doesn't want to give it back to Patterson, either. "It's still a curiosity," Meatte explained. "I don't want it dragged around by an individual shopping for opinions," and leaving it subject to modifying.

He suggested the print might ultimately be displayed, or at least kept, at Flaming Geyser Park. Patterson said he cut the track loose from a block of sandstone that had fallen from a cliff into the edge of the Green River.

The 13-by-13-inch track is striking and, if a hoax, was expertly done, Andors noted. It has few of the tool marks expected from casual carving. But evidence is strong against it, he wrote:

-- Instead of compressing the sand or mud that formed the sandstone, the track cuts through sediment layers, suggesting it was made after the mud had hardened into stone. Patterson disputes this finding, saying the sediment layers are in fact compressed by the print.

-- Diatryma was probably extinct by the time the sediment in the gorge was deposited.

-- The track differs in detail from known fossil feet of Diatryma, including the length of one of the three toes and the shape of the nails or talons at the end.

-- There are a few chisel marks across one edge of the middle toe and scratches in the impression made by the talons, suggesting human sculpting.

The scientists suggested the shape might have been scratched out by fishermen and the deeper talon marks may have been made to rest the butt of a fishing pole.

Patterson said the idea that the shallow impressions were carved to hold a pole is ludicrous.

"I just don't want it to end up in the basement of the Burke Museum," Patterson said when he announced the find. Ironically, that is where the track now resides.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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