Maryland's dinosaurs in the spotlight

Smithsonian exhibit is first to focus on region's ancient flora and fauna

May 04, 2010|By Frank D. Roylance, The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON — The Smithsonian Institution's Dinosaur Hall is filled with the skeletons of magnificent giants, collected from around the world by professional paleontologists.

But the museum's first-ever exhibition of dinosaur fossils from the museum's own "backyard" would not have been possible without the contributions of local amateurs.

And amateurs — including kids like 9-year-old Gabrielle Block, of Annandale, Va., who found a dinosaur tailbone during a visit to Maryland's Dinosaur Park last fall — are still discovering bits and pieces from the Cretaceous Period, and adding to scientists' understanding of that ancient world.

"What I wanted to do with the exhibit was to show there is always this partnership," said Matthew Carrano, curator of dinosaurs at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

"Scientists have been finding things since the 1800s, but so have the locals," Carrano said. "It's nice to be able to show that to people, and to encourage people, as well. Someone who comes to see the exhibit could be the next person to find a fossil. This shows it's worthwhile."

There are no skeletons in this display like the huge beasts just around the corner in the Dinosaur Hall. The freshwater rivers and bogs that covered Maryland and the District of Columbia 110 million years ago accelerated decomposition, reducing most organic matter to bits and pieces before it fossilized.

But from the collected fragments of dinosaur bones, crocodile teeth, turtle shells, conifer cones and footprints, the museum's curators have conjured up an entire swampy ecosystem for the new display, which opened this week in a corner of the hall opposite the FossiLab.

"These are windows. This is how we time-travel," Carrano said.

If a display dedicated to Maryland and D.C. dinosaur fossils has been a long time coming, so have the fossils.

"In past years there probably hasn't been enough material to really put a story together like this," Carrano said. "Now we do have enough, and with people going to the park and finding more, it seems like the right time."

Called "Dinosaurs in the Backyard," the display includes a large map of North America, showing where the geology says dinosaur fossils might be found, with dots showing where they have actually been found.

On exhibit are about two dozen local fossils from the hundreds now in the museum's collection. Each is brought back to "life" in a large painting depicting many of the varied species of plants and animals that the fossils testify were here during the Cretaceous Period.

Many of the finds are on loan or were donated by local collectors and amateur paleontologists such as David Hacker, Tom Lipka, Michael Styre and Ray Stanford.

Stanford said he was pleased that "finally the amateurs here are getting some recognition in a way that's good for all of us."

The largest fossil in the display case is a piece of a femur, 5 or 6 inches long, from an adult ornithomimid, an ostrich-like dinosaur, found during construction in the District of Columbia in 1942.

But most of the finds have come from what is now Maryland's "Dinosaur Park." The seven-acre preserve was once part of the General Shale Co. clay pit and brick factory in Muirkirk, near Laurel. The land was donated last year by the Dallas development firm Jackson-Shaw to the Prince George's County Department of Parks and Recreation.

The site has been giving up Cretaceous fossils since Philip Tyson found a large dinosaur tooth there in 1859. It's been called one of the most prolific sites for dinosaur-age fossils east of the Mississippi River.

And it continues to yield clues to the ancient past today, as school kids and adults participate in science and collecting programs there run by the Dinosaur Fund.

Gabrielle Block found her prize bone on the first day the park was open to the public last November.

"You, too, could find some of these fossils," said Dinosaur Fund President Peter Kranz, a Washington geologist who lobbied for years to save the site from development and open it as an educational resource.

The park is open for free public programs from noon to 4 p.m. on the first and third Saturdays of each month. Private programs are available at other times for a fee.

"Anything you find in the park, unfortunately, will have to stay in the park, because it goes to the Smithsonian collection," Kranz said. "However, should you be the discoverer, you, too, could have your name listed as the discoverer of that particular fossil. And a number of people already have."

Kranz said he was pleased that the Smithsonian decided to give local finds a permanent place in the Dinosaur Hall.

"I think that it's extraordinarily well done … simply presented, answering questions clearly and giving the general public an idea of what it's actually possible to find in this area," he said.

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