'Free-lance' searches for state's dinosaurs

December 10, 1990|By Luther Young

Peter Kranz doesn't even slow down as he threads the concrete jungle of industrial parks, shopping strips and housing developments between Baltimore and Washington, seeking unpaved islands that hold secrets to Maryland's prehistoric past.

"This is Eastern geology, yes sir," he said with a chuckle, steering his rickety van toward an eroded outcrop hidden in Bladensburg, where 100-million-year-old fossilized logs of bald cypress stick out of the gray clay just yards from a trucking terminal.

"Most of the dinosaur bones in Maryland have been found in that layer, and there're probably some in here," said Dr. Kranz, picking through red nodules of iron ore and blackened splinters of fossil wood on the surface.

Dinosaurs did roam the state during a period from about 228 million to 70 million years ago. For much of that time, Maryland was a low, broad plain cut by rivers and undergoing stresses from volcanic and seismic activity. It was a lush, tropical environment bursting with plant and animal life.

Dr. Kranz has found more evidence of local dinosaurs than any other living person, including the recent discovery of a tooth from a brick company's quarry near Laurel that may represent the first new dinosaur species identified in Maryland in a century.

The 46-year-old "free-lance" paleontologist, entrepreneur and Washington science teacher will report on the tooth at a news briefing in Baltimore tomorrow. The public can meet him at the opening of the Maryland Science Center's "Dinosaurs: Back in Time" exhibit this Saturday.

Dr. Kranz's earnest mission is to learn as much as possible about the dinosaurs of Maryland by recruiting legions of amateurs to comb the state for fossils he "knows" are there, and that means spreading the word, especially to those most fascinated by dinosaurs, children.

He wants Maryland to proclaim a "state dinosaur" -- Astrodon, a medium-sized plant-eater whose remains are the most abundant the state -- and hopes to change to "Capitalsaurus" the name of a species of dinosaur discovered on Capitol Hill in Washington in 1898.

"People think dinosaurs existed only out West," he said. "It's true that fewer fossils have been found here, mostly teeth and fragments of bone. But that doesn't mean they aren't out there if we just look."

His pamphlet, "Dinosaurs in Maryland," published in 1989 by the Maryland Geological Survey, identifies at least a half-dozen species thought to have lived here, almost all in a narrow strip of coastal plain running diagonally from Cecil County to Washington.

That area -- known to geologists as the Arundel Formation -- is a layer of gray clay eroded from the Appalachian Mountains and containing iron ore that was mined in Maryland from Colonial times to just before World War I, largely along the route of U.S. 1.

The mining excavations turned up dinosaur fossils from a period of the geologic past known as the Early Cretaceous, approximately 130 million to 95 million years ago. Dinosaurs lived from 230 million years ago until 65 million years ago.

And the Early Cretaceous has produced very few fossils in the dinosaur scheme of things.

The bulk of North American dinosaurs discovered so far are from the Late Jurassic (160 million to 130 million years ago) -- examples are Allosaurus and Stegosaurus -- or the Late Cretaceous (90 million to 65 million years ago), featuring Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops.

"Maryland is the only place on the East Coast to yield up Early Cretaceous," said David B. Weishampel, an anatomy teacher at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School and known for his dinosaur finds in Montana. "It is in fact an island of important information."

Unlike the fertile bone beds in the Western United States, fossils in the East face a wet, dynamic environment that erodes soil and quickly covers it with vegetation, and rampant development, which has "paved everything from Maine to Florida," Dr. Weishampel joked.

Most of the historic evidence in Maryland was unearthed in the late 1800s in the so-called "Dinosaur Alley" between Baltimore and Washington from mining sites near towns along U.S. 1.

Two respected fossil hunters made the finds: John Bell Hatcher of Yale University in 1887-1888 and Arthur Barnevald Bibbins, a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University who later taught geology at Goucher College, from 1894 to 1896.

And the hundreds of bones and teeth they discovered belonged creatures identified as Astrodon; Priconodon, a plant-eating ankylosaur; Archeornithomimus, an ostrich dinosaur; Coelurus, a small meat-eater; Tenontosaurus, a large, powerfully built vegetarian; and Dryptosaurus, a fierce carnivore in the Tyrannosaurus mold.

Now housed in the fossil collection at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History in Washington, these 19th-century fossils represent the last methodical effort to exhume Maryland's dinosaur past until eccentric Peter M. Kranz dived headfirst into the pursuit in the mid-1980s.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.