Footprints frozen in time Dinosaurs: A man with a talented eye finds thousands of dinosaur tracks in Maryland, where scientists said there were none.

June 04, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Ray Stanford's hobby is taking over his house.

Hundreds, maybe thousands of rocks are heaped in knee-high windrows around his living room. Rock piles snake across the floor, under and over his furniture. Stacks of rocks have permanently usurped his kitchen stove.

"We don't even eat here, there are so many darn rocks in the house," Stanford said. His insurance company urged him to reinforce his floor beams. He did. But he won't get rid of the rocks.

These rocks are pocked with footprints, traces of a lost world that flourished 105 million to 115 million years ago, during a time geologists call the Cretaceous period.

The collection is a rocky Rolodex of the dinosaurs and flying reptiles that once roamed the steamy lakes and bogs of the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

In four years of what he agrees is obsessive rock-gathering in local streambeds, the writer, researcher and admitted "total amateur" paleontologist has amassed an astonishing collection of early Cretaceous footprints that the textbooks said did not exist.

"It is priceless a time machine," said Dr. Robert T. Bakker, famed fossil hunter and curator of the Tate Museum in Casper, Wyo.

"If you want to understand Maryland dinosaurs, you want lots of skeletons and you want lots of footprints. But we didn't have the footprints at all. Now, thanks to Ray, we have lots."

Stanford, his wife, Sheila, and the rocks occupy what is otherwise an unremarkable Washington-area house. (To protect his collection, Stanford asked The Sun not to reveal the location.)

The piles seem chaotic. In fact, it's a filing system. The track-bearing rocks are segregated by dinosaur type, and each pile is "labeled" by representative toy dinosaurs.

But this collection is no joke. Stanford, 59 and self-taught, has confounded the experts.

Dr. David Weishampel, a Johns Hopkins biologist and anatomist and author of a recent book on East Coast dinosaurs, was skeptical, but he took a look last fall.

"My jaw dropped," he said. "After picking it up, I started looking at things with a more critical eye. I was astounded." Weishampel admits his book now needs a rewrite.

Track expert Robert Weems of the U.S. Geological Survey said: "There is nothing remotely comparable to it for the Cretaceous anywhere in eastern North America."

It's not just that the wiry, "hyper" Texan has found prints where scientists said they didn't exist. Stanford has found more than 150 prints of up to a dozen species -- several new -- in a region where teeth and bones had hinted at barely four.

Scientists can now fill the skies of Cretaceous Maryland with flying reptiles with 22-foot wingspans. On the ground, they can add feathered dinosaurs or early birds, said Weishampel.

There are big and little examples -- and front and rear feet -- of the long-necked plant eaters called sauropods.

"We've got a couple of different kinds of herbivores we didn't know about before. And we may have a baby ankylosaur," a squat, tank-like armored beast. "All these are brand new and based on Ray's collection," he said.

On Stanford's green shag carpet lies a 200-pound, 26-inch-wide natural cast of a sauropod print. It may be Astrodon johnstoni, this year designated Maryland's official state dinosaur. It's the 00 first sauropod track found east of the Mississippi.

There are dime-sized, three-toed tracks Stanford believes were made by baby dinosaurs as they skittered around the print of a much bigger one.

Other rocks show where big flying reptiles called pterosaurs pressed their narrow feet and bony "fingers" into a muddy landing spot. And a 15-inch sauropod print may reveal skin patterns on the dinosaur's soles. Both would be firsts for the East.

Another slab shows where a pair of small meat-eaters squatted in the cooling mud. Stanford points out impressions of their feet, "hands" and undersides, surrounded by a fringe of what look like feathers. If so, it's a rarity sure to add fuel to the debate about the dinosaurian origins of birds.

Professionally cautious, Weems, Weishampel and Bakker differ with Stanford, or one another, on a few of these interpretations. But they scoff at none of it.

"At least 90 percent of what he says is there, I would agree with," Weems said. "And it could be all the way to 100 percent."

Stanford never earned a scientific degree. He built rockets as a kid, was intrigued by space propulsion, and for many years headed the Phoenix-based Project Starlight International, which studied UFO incidents.

One day he'd like to display his collection, perhaps at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, if nothing more suitable can be found. Maryland has no natural history museum.

America's first dinosaur prints were found during the 19th century, in a swath from Connecticut to Virginia. Most came from sediments from the late Triassic or early Jurassic periods, perhaps 200 million to 210 million years ago. Later exploration in Western states turned up many more.

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