New digs for dinosaurs

Exhibit: The Science Center provides a home for "hometown" giant lizards, some of whose bones were resting nearby not that long ago.

September 30, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

After being encased in rock for more than 115 million years, and stashed in boxes for another 140, Maryland's dinosaurs are finally getting their day in the spotlight.

On Saturday, the Maryland Science Center will open what is believed to be the first exhibit anywhere on the giant reptiles that once made the Land of Pleasant Living their home.

Amazingly, amid all the shopping malls and tract housing and industrial parks, the "terrible lizards" are still with us, often almost literally in our back yards.

Visitors to the temporary exhibit will see the huge Astrodon femur discovered in 1991. Fossil-hunter Arnold Norden and his kids found it in a clay pit in Prince George's County. The 4-foot leg bone is one of several fossils on loan to the exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution.

Then there's the chunk of a juvenile Astrodon's femur found last year embedded in an ironstone boulder in Arbutus. That one was spotted in a barren lot by another amateur, Rick Smith, and his 8-year-old son Jeremy. The rock has since been sawed open, and visitors can see the femur's outlines, and touch its bony-looking interior, transformed into stone.

Perhaps most fascinating of all is the slab of rock that once served as a paving stone in a sidewalk at the Daughters of Charity Provincial House in Emmitsburg. It is pocked with tracks of turkey-sized dinosaurs that once skittered across the mud flats of a lake. Their passage has been recorded in stone for more than 200 million years.

Maryland's dinosaurs are more than just an oddity, says David B. Weishampel, a Johns Hopkins University anatomist, and co-author of a book rich in Maryland dino-lore, "Dinosaurs of the East Coast." The local fossils may be humble, and they turn up in humdrum locations. But they have real scientific importance.

"We have in our back yards the only Early Cretaceous site on the East Coast. So we have the only representatives of dinosaurs for a rather large extent of time," he says.

And the list of species that lived here in those days is growing all the time. There were meat-eaters, huge plant-eating sauropods such as Astrodons, flying pterosaurs and plenty more.

By discovering what was here, and comparing them with finds from similar times in other places, Weishampel said, "we get a picture of dinosaurs we otherwise wouldn't get if the material wasn't preserved."

There is some evidence that Maryland's dinosaurs are closely related to those from the same period in Europe. It was a time before the Atlantic Ocean opened up, when the two continents were attached, says geologist Peter Kranz.

Maryland's dinosaurs are important, Kranz says, in showing how dinosaurs of the late Jurassic time came to evolve into the dinosaurs of later Cretaceous times.

Dinosaur initiatives

It was Kranz, an educator who through his Dinosaur Fund has worked to popularize dinosaurs, who led the children's campaign that last year finally won legislative recognition for Astrodon johnstoni as the Maryland State Dinosaur.

He also has worked to secure fossil-rich parkland in Muirkirk, Prince George's County, and initial public funding to establish a Dinosaur Park there. When it's developed, he hopes the park will be host to scientists, schoolchildren and tourists in a cooperative dig for new fossils and new knowledge about Maryland's ancient past.

Maryland's dinosaur finds once made big scientific news. An Astrodon tooth found in a Bladensburg bog-iron pit in 1858 was the first sauropod discovery in North America to be scientifically described.

But it wasn't long before new giants and nearly complete skeletons found in the western United States and Canada eclipsed the East Coast's remains. There were no complete Maryland skeletons, and not even a single native skull. And what was found quickly disappeared into boxes at the Smithsonian Institution.

Kranz calls it the "Lost Ark Syndrome" -- a reference to the final scene in the 1981 movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark," in which the lost Ark of the Covenant is found, only to disappear again into a mammoth government warehouse.

The Science Center's 1,500-square-foot exhibit is a modest, $20,000 effort to exhume those remains and rekindle public awareness of the state's saurian past, and the potential for new finds even today.

In addition to the Astrodon femurs and dino tracks, visitors will find a newly commissioned oil painting by Baltimore dinosaur artist Gregory Paul depicting a Maryland scene during the early Cretaceous period, about 115 million years ago.

It shows a herd of 14 mostly juvenile Astrodons walking out of a shallow coastal river, surrounded by dragonflies, water lilies, flying reptiles and huge flocks of early birds.

"It was a very important time," Paul says. "Flowering plants were starting to appear. Birds were becoming common. It was becoming quite modern, yet still full of dinosaurs. It was a wonderful, transitional period."

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