Friday, September 30, 2011

I Really Should Be Fascinated By Dinosaurs

In which the blogger confesses to being amazed, but not fascinated, by dinosaurs, describes two recent dinosaur fossil finds in Maryland, and identifies the most fascinating theme running through both stories.
I really should be fascinated (with all of that word's meaning of spell-casting) by dinosaurs and dinosaur fossils.  I know they are a common gateway drug to a paleontology addiction, though they weren't for me (I fell for fossil shark teeth).  The Natural History Museum of London’s The Book of Dinosaurs (2001) asks, regarding dinosaurs, “Why are they so fascinating?” and answers that the public’s fascination with dinosaurs probably arises because these terrestrial reptiles
seem so amazingly different from the animals we know – bus-sized plant-eaters, hunters with 20 centimetre-long serrated teeth, strange creatures with outlandish names.  (p. 7)

Photo above taken in Dinosaur Hall at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

Ironically, that quote captures one of the reasons that, though I am truly amazed by the creatures, I am not fascinated by them, having never been drawn to them, even as a child.  To me, dinosaurs were so fundamentally and dramatically unlike anything alive today that they were truly alien in their terrible otherness, to be considered with caution and not to be embraced lest they come to populate nightmares . . . or give rise to movie scenes such as the one in the movie Jurassic Park in which the Park’s lawyer, cowering on a toilet, is eaten by a T. rex (a scene ranked by some as among the best movie deaths of all time).

The basic theme of the Natural History Museum of London’s treatise – that dinosaurs were, in many essential ways, including social organization, feeding, movement, much like extant reptiles and mammals – might have made the creatures more appealing to me had that message had been known, accepted, and promoted years ago.

As a Marylander, living in a dinosaur hotspot, I really should be a dinosaur aficionado.  A recent article in Smithsonian Magazine asserts, “Today Maryland is one of the richest fossil-hunting sites east of the Mississippi.”  (Abby Callard, A Dinosaur Graveyard in the Smithsonian's Backyard, Smithsonian Magazine, February, 2010.)  And Prince George’s County, just down the road, is the destination for dinosaur fossils within Maryland.  Recognized dinosaur finds in this area date back to the mid-1800s with the discovery of a tooth from a huge herbivorous dinosaur that came to be named Astrodon johnstoni, now the Maryland state dinosaur.  A bit later, during the winter of 1887-8, fossil hunter John Bell Hatcher, at the behest of his teacher, Yale University’s O.C. Marsh (who vied with E.D. Cope in the “Dinosaur Wars”) searched for dinosaur fossils in Maryland and located
what would become the richest dinosaur fossil site ever found in the Lower Cretaceous of the East Coast – the Arundel Clay in the area between Beltsville and Muirkirk in Prince George's County. The outcrop belt of the Arundel Clay between Washington and Baltimore became known as "dinosaur alley."  (Maryland Geological Survey, Astrodon johnstoni: the Maryland State Dinosaur, FactSheet 12)
Last week, the local media bubbled with stories about two dinosaur fossils finds in Maryland.  Both fossils were discovered in Prince George’s County and both are now ensconced in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

The first of these stories recounts the scientific culmination of a process begun in 1997 when local amateur paleontologist and dinosaur fossil hunter Ray Stanford found a rock in a stream bed near his home in Prince George’s County.  Stanford initially believed he had found a dinosaur footprint, but, as he describes it, when he took it home
We put it up above the stove where the sun hit it and we got some unusual shadows. . . . And here I saw ribs sticking out. I took a brush and brushed it out. I said, “We’ve got a small dinosaur here.”
After some research on his own, he took the chunk of rock with its five inch-long imprinted pattern of shapes and designs to renowned dinosaur expert David Weishampel of the Center for Functional Anatomy and Evolution at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine.  Stanford and Weishampel then collaborated on an article just published in the Journal of Paleontology formally identifying what Stanford found – a mixture of molds and casts of a 110 million year old dinosaur hatchling, a new species named by Stanford Propanoplosaurus marylandicus, one of the armored herbivorous nodosaurid dinosaurs, a family within the Ankylosauria group.  (Ray Stanford, et al., The First Hatchling Dinosaur Reported from the Eastern United States: Propanoplosaurus marylandicus (Dinosauria: Ankylosauria) from the Early Cretaceous of Maryland, U.S.A., Journal of Paleontology, September 2011, abstract; see also, Brian Vastag, College Park Resident Finds a Fossil First: a Hatchling Armored Dinosaur, Washington Post, September 13, 2011; Propanoplosaurus Marylandicus: A Win For Open (And Citizen) Science, Science 2.0, September 14, 2011)

Here’s the fossil as it is currently displayed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

This fossil remains a puzzle to me, even with the explanation that it is the imprint of “a hatchling nodosaur on its back, much of its body imprinted along with the top of its skull" (Science 2.0).  I liken it to the Magic Eye 3-D images of the 1990s which could be seen only if you tried to look through the picture.  (For what it’s worth, Weishampel consulted with Steven Spielberg on Jurassic Park – don’t know whether he had any input in the T. rex toilet scene.)

The second find was made on September 10th at a small Cretaceous site called Dinosaur Park.  Situated in “dinosaur alley,” Dinosaur Park is owned and operated by Prince George’s County, offering the general public opportunities each month to do some collecting with all finds going to the Smithsonian.  The County pronounces Dinosaur Park, “one of the most important dinosaur sites east of the Mississippi River.”

Amateur paleontologist and local fossil hunter, David Hacker, discovered this fossil when he checked out Dinosaur Park one day to see what recent heavy rains might have exposed.  Here’s how he described the discovery in a video appearing on the Baltimore Sun’s website:
[I came to the park to] see what the rain from Tropical Storm Lee washed out.  And I was just about to leave when I noticed a small portion of a larger bone exposed on the ground.  What I didn’t do was I didn’t dig it out immediately because if I had I might have damaged it and had it fall apart, and it would have been less useful to science and harder to figure out what it is.
Smithsonian experts were called in and, when they carefully uncovered it, discovered the specimen was fractured into two pieces.  They jacketed the material and took it back to the Natural History Museum for preparation and conservation.  (Frank D. Roylance, Dinosaur Bone Found in Laurel, Baltimore Sun, September 21, 2011.)  The find, approximately 6 inches long, is pictured below following initial preparation at the Smithsonian.

So, what is this nondescript two-part hunk of stone?  It’s early yet.  “Dinosaur bone” seems to be the most definitive statement offered to this point, although Smithsonian fossil preparator Steve Jabo hazarded the opinion that it was a sauropod bone (Baltimore Sun video).

There we have it, the two most recent Maryland finds to garner attention.  I hate to admit it but these fossils haven’t done much to generate new interest on my part in dinosaurs.  Perhaps it’s the bizarre nature of the first one or the unremarkable appearance of the second.

Actually, though these finds may be of importance for research on dinosaurs, their true significance for me comes from the fact that citizen scientists made the finds and then worked with the professionals.  Now, that's really fascinating.

[Full disclosure:  I played with the title and first sentence of this posting after it initially went up.]

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