Boning up on the past

Fossils: Armed to dig and brush carefully, a Johns Hopkins class seeks the dinosaurs that once roamed Arbutus.

November 07, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

With trowels, toothbrushes, shovels and hammers in hand, about 20 people descended yesterday on a dusty lot off U.S. 1 near Interstate 95 and the Baltimore Beltway to spend a beautiful fall morning digging in the dirt amid abandoned tires and broken concrete.

The search for the Arbutusaurus was on.

"It's just a matter of being in the right place at the right time," Peter M. Kranz told the group of adult students, who are taking a course on dinosaurs. "That's why we have all of you out here. We want as many pairs of eyes as possible."

Kranz is a bearded and bushy-haired geologist who is the Pied Piper of dinosaur hunting in Maryland. He was the one selling Astrodon T-shirts out of the back of his van.

The Astrodon is Maryland's official dinosaur -- Kranz was one of its chief lobbyists -- and the empty lot is where one of its biggest bones was found. If this group was going to find anything, it was probably going to be pieces of one of the 30-foot-long, 10-ton creatures.

"I had no idea dinosaurs that big roamed around here. You think of them as being in places like Wyoming or Montana," said Elaine Gick, one of the students in the noncredit course offered by the Johns Hopkins University's Odyssey program.

But if someone did find evidence of a new species, it would not be beyond Kranz to name it after the surrounding community, in this case Arbutus.

That's what he did for one dug up on Capitol Hill, now known as the Capitalsaurus and the official dinosaur of Washington. Kranz says a street has been renamed after the dinosaur. A child-friendly, climbable life-size model is on the way.

Standing in a motel parking lot, Kranz gave instructions: 100 million-year-old fossilized bones have a spongy look. Teeth are sharp little spikes. Lunch is at a nearby Wendy's.

Then, it was off to the dig site, once used to mine rocks for iron. The big bone -- a femur -- found a year ago was discovered in one of those rocks by amateur paleontologist Rick Smith. Now it's in the Maryland Science Center.

Bolton Hill resident Dave Scarpetti scrubbed at a rock with a toothbrush.

"It sounded like fun," Scarpetti said of signing up for the course, which has featured a different lecturer each week. "I guess it's like a childlike fascination with dinosaurs."

A recent class on footprints had Scarpetti looking for three-toed impressions and tiny indentations that could have been left behind by toenails.

Footprints would be the object of the afternoon search at a building site in nearby Relay.

"Paleontologists love places like this, where the developer grades the land and then runs out of money," Kranz said. The exposed rocks might yield fossils or footprints.

A rocky past

Throughout the morning, searchers brought bits of rock up for Kranz's perusal and approval. He usually dashed their hopes. A possible dinosaur egg shell turned out to be the remains of a toilet bowl, a curved slab of iron with a bit of worn porcelain attached.

Kranz was impressed by some plant impressions found in stone by Bill Mettee, 63, a retired city employee. He had tagged along with his son, Bill Jr., who was signed up for the class.

"I've never seen anything exactly like that here before," Kranz said.

Kranz said the searchers should not be disappointed to come up empty-handed. He noted that it was easy to find chunks of lignite, a charcoal-like substance that had sat in the ground for 100 million years.

"When I take kids out, I tell them the last time anything touched that lignite, it was a dinosaur eating the leaves off the tree that produced it," he said.

A life's passion

Kranz, who does about anything he can involving dinosaurs -- from designing museum exhibits to performing at birthday parties -- said almost every child is fascinated with dinosaurs but grows out of it.

"Of the 6 billion people on Earth, there are about 30 or 40 who make their living as paleontologists working on dinosaurs," he said. "So if your kid is still interested in dinosaurs when they reach double digits in age, you better worry."

Kranz turned to dinosaurs by necessity. His doctorate in geology from the University of Chicago involved work with ancient clams.

"When I told people I was going out to look for clam fossils, there was no response," he said. "But when I said I was going to look for dinosaurs, people were interested."

Kranz is involved in developing a dinosaur park in Prince George's County and sees the big beasts as a potential tourist attraction. "We've got something here in Maryland no one else has," he said. "We should take advantage of it."

And a child shall lead

As the Odyssey class was getting near the end of its two-hour long Arbutus search, a gaggle of schoolchildren swarmed over the hillside. They were brought there by Smith, who made last year's find and runs an after-school natural science club at Arbutus Elementary.

A few minutes later, 9-year-old Becky Brach popped out of the dust with a spongy piece of rock. Smith looked at it and took it to Kranz. He examined it carefully. "I think that's a piece of bone," he said.

The dusty adult students could just shake their heads. Time for lunch.

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