White Mountains Online

Petrified Forest National Park


Behind the Scenery:
Research at Petrified Forest National Park

The reasons that people visit Petrified Forest National Park are varied and personal. Most of the nearly one million park visitors come to see the beautifully preserved petrified logs or to gaze upon the colorful Painted Desert. Some stay merely long enough to take a snapshot or buy a postcard, while others may venture overnight into the park's remote wilderness areas. Each park visitor is rewarded by rich resources that make up the Petrified Forest.

A small and dedicated group of individuals come to Petrified Forest National Park each year for a very specific reason - RESEARCH. Over 30 scientific and historical researchers return to the park each year in an attempt to better understand the park's natural and cultural resources. This research team works in a partnership to provide the most up-to-date information about the park to the park staff. This new information enables the park employees to better manage the resources and provide the most current information to the park visitor.

The research team consists of investigators from across the United States. Researchers travel to the park from Virginia, Maryland, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Colorado, California, New Mexico, Utah, and even from within Arizona. They come to study the animals, plants, rocks, fossils, artifacts, and the quality of the air. Their collective educational backgrounds range from astrophysics to wildlife biology. Their work helps to unravel the mysteries of the park.

The research teams consist of some interesting and charismatic characters. The team includes what can be considered the female equivalent to "Indiana Jones" named Trinkle Jones. Trinkle has served as the park's senior archaeologist for the past decade. She works as a National Park Service archaeologist in many sites in Arizona, but the park staff like to claim her as their own. Trinkle has organized teams of specialists and volunteers to inventory well over 500 archaeological sites within the park boundaries. As a researcher, Trinkle is dedicated to ensure that the information gained through her research is shared with the public. A book about the park's archaeology has been prepared by Trinkle and is for sale at the Park's visitor centers.

Another interesting researcher is an English born paleontologist named Adrian Hunt. Park visitors may stumble upon Adrian in some remote portion of the park where he searches for teeth, bones and tracks of ancient amphibians and reptiles (including some of the earliest dinosaurs). Although his English accent as diminished, Adrian is recognizable by his graying temples and boyish face. Adrian is very enthusiastic about the Park's fossil record, but has a particular fondness for the extinct group of reptiles called phytosaurs (FIGHT-O-SAURS). A mounted skeleton of a phytosaur can be seen at the Rainbow Forest Museum.

It is hard to imagine why an astrophysicist finds Petrified Forest National Park as the perfect place to conduct research. However, Bob Preston, from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has visited the park twice a year for more years than we are permitted to print. Bob's treks to the Park provide for an intriguing story about past human activity in the park area. His research involves the examination of specific types of rock are (petroglyphs) that possess characters that link them with the solar cycles. This type of rock art is referred to as a solstice marker. During the summer and winter solstice, Bob measures how sunlight images and shadows interact with the rock art.

Another long term researcher at Petrified Forest is Sid Ash. Sid is a professor of paleobotany at Weber State University in Utah. He has worked in the park longer than any other researcher (fell researchers claim that Sid has worked in the park since the Late Triassic when the fossil trees were still living). Field work with Sid means hard work. He dresses accordingly in tee shirt, jeans, boots and carries a well-used rock hammer. His modest demeanor conceals a wealth of knowledge regarding Late Triassic fossils plants. Sid's work is not limited to the petrified wood. He has published articles on ferns, cycads, seeds, pollen and even fossil amber. Sid has left a mark on the park both with his rock hammer and his dedication.

A new component to the research team arrived recently to the Park. Their mission is clear - to understand why people illegally remove petrified wood from the park and what are the best strategies to reduce this problem. The Petrified Wood Loss Study researchers consist of faculty and graduate students from Virginia Polytechnical Institute. The theft of petrified wood by visitors is a serious problem in the park. The magnificently preserved wood must be protected to ensure that future visitors will have the opportunities to experience this fascinating resource.

Petrified Forest may appear barren to some, however, biologist Richard Ockenfels, finds the area to be important for research. Since the park has been fenced and protected from cattle grazing and development for many decades, the park's richly recovered vegetation provides some of the best wildlife habitat in northeastern Arizona. The varied plants and animals that live in the semi-arid grasslands have developed specialized adaptations that interest researches. Richard, a mammalogist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, is studying the behavior and reproductive habits of the Pronghorn Antelope.

A variety of additional research projects are underway in the Park. The success of the Park Research Program is, in part, due to the support of the Petrified Forest Museum Association. This non-profit organization provides grants to park researchers. Proceeds from the sale of books in the visitor centers help to support Park research.

The work of the Park's research team is not always glamorous. Long hours in the hot sun, dry and dusty winds, tedious searches, and strenuous backcountry hikes comprise the typical researcher's day. The precious pieces of data they collect can come painstakingly slow or by a sudden chance discovery. The knowledge gained through the research facilitates park management decision-making and inspires park visitors. Look far into the Painted Desert........perhaps you will spot a park researcher or just dream of what secrets are yet to be uncovered.

Article contributed by Vince Santucci, Paleontologist

Published by permission of Michele Hellickson, Superintendent - Petrified Forest National Park

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