Paleontologically speaking, Astrodon is Md.'s dinosaur Senator wants to make it official

January 23, 1992|By John W. Frece and Frank D. Roylance | John W. Frece and Frank D. Roylance,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Long before colonial lawmakers quaffed their first ale at local taverns, and long before the first lobbyists were sighted along the banks of the Severn, Astrodon johnstoni foraged through the land that would become Maryland.

And now, 130 million years later (give or take), a state legislator wants to declare Astrodon the official, not-to-be-confused-with-others, state dinosaur.

"If they were our precursors here in Maryland, then we ought to have them as our dinosaur," said Sen. Arthur Dorman, D-Prince George's, sponsor of the Astrodon bill.

Maryland, he said, already has a state bird, state boat, state crustacean, state dog, state fish, state flag, state flower and even a state fossil shell. Why not a state dinosaur?

The answer, several colleagues say, is that Maryland is in such bad financial shape and faces so many pressing issues that Astrodon is a waste of time.

"I don't think this is a session when we should be considering bills the public perceives as frivolous or unnecessary," Sen. Michael J. Collins, D-Baltimore County, said.

State Dinosaur or not, Astrodon was not the sort you'd invite to your next bull roast.

For starters, at 50 to 60 feet long and taller than a row house, Astrodon would upset the neighbors with its comings and goings. Worse, the creature was a vegetarian, likely to leave a pile of leftover crabs and a defoliated garden.

Senator Dorman said Astrodon is peculiar to Maryland, a mammoth beast whose bones have been found in sand and gravel pits along the U.S. 1 corridor near Beltsville, Muirkirk and Bladensburg.

Paleontologists believe Astrodon was a "sauropod," with a long neck and tail, small head and heavily-built legs, much like the familiar, and somewhat bigger, Brontosaurus, more properly called Apatosaurus.

In its favor, Astrodon has been found only in Maryland and has left more of its remains here -- mostly bone fragments and scattered teeth -- than any of its dinosaurian neighbors.

Its proper name -- Astrodon nanus, or "little star-tooth" -- is pretty enough, invented by a paleontologist who intrigued by the shape of a tooth he found, and by the relatively diminutive size of the animal itself.

But Astrodon wasn't the only dinosaur from which the General Assembly could choose. At least a half-dozen species are known to have lived and died here in a period that ended 70 million years ago.

Among them were the plant-eating Priconodon; the ostrich-like Archeornithomimus; Coelurus, a small meat-eater; Tenontosaurus, a large, powerfully built vegetarian; and Dryptosaurus, a fierce carnivore much like the famous Tyrannosaurus, which evolved much later.

None of these dinosaurs would have felt at home in Maryland's climate today. They might be more at ease in the Philippines.

"Just think of Washington today in August, only year-round," said Dr. Nicholas Hotton 3rd, a curator of paleontology at the Smithsonian Institution.

Whatever they found to eat, there must have been a lot of it to support the evolution of such huge animals. But Dr. Hotton believes such huge beasts probably demolished their immediate environment, and so they "probably kept on the move all the time."

The remains from that period are in a narrow strip of gray clay, known as the Arundel formation, stretching from Washington to Cecil County along the U.S. 1 corridor.

Highway and railroad construction and iron mining have turned up traces of Cretaceous dinosaurs for more than a century, earning the strip the name "Dinosaur Alley."

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