The downpour that accompanied Hurricane Sandy last week may prove a boon for travelers in search of dinosaur bones. Turns out, when it rains, layers of earth steadily shift, sometimes revealing traces of prehistoric giants long buried in fossil-rich grounds.
That’s the case at Dinosaur Park in Laurel, MD. The biggest find on the 41-acre grounds occurred back in 1991, when a man and his 2 children uncovered what would become known as the largest dinosaur bone found in the Northeast — a 3-foot-long, 90-pound thigh bone of an Astrodon (Maryland’s official state dinosaur, so named in 1998).
While the grounds haven’t yielded anything quite so spectacular in the 2 decades since, they have revealed just enough to ensure the park remains the most significant fossil site east of the Mississippi — a status bolstered, in some cases, by finds unearthed after a big rainstorm. In fact, that’s your best time to go – because Dinosaur Park, which is open to the public, strictly prohibits digging, which may damage any potential finds. Instead, fossils are found by running your hands over the earth’s surface. (It’s something little kids have infinite patience for, as you’ll find on a visit to the park). Or sometimes a discovery comes through the sheer luck of spotting something with the naked eye.
That’s what happened in September 2011 to Dinosaur Park volunteer Dave Hacker, when he spotted something on the ground after the heavy rains of Tropical Storm Lee. That “something” turned out to be a fossil a little larger than a fist — a team of paleontologists with the Smithsonian later identified the find as an ankle bone (Astragalus) — some 112 million years old — from a lizard-hipped dinosaur (sauropod), presumably an Astrodon. It’s one of the myriad dinosaurs that once thrived in a warm and swampy stretch of land, similar to present-day southern Louisiana, up until 65 million years ago, when winding rivers and oxbow lakes were the norm, along with prehistoric turtles, crocodiles, snails and mussels.
Since Sandy, Dinosaur Park has seen a few new finds — a couple of nodosaur teeth this past Saturday. (Fun fact: Teeth are a common find, especially because dinosaurs and crocodiles could regrow their teeth after they fell out.) While no one can predict when the next prehistoric find may reveal itself, you will certainly find yourself transported back in time. Lignite is a common find on the grounds — that’s the carbonized sections of limbs and trunks of ancient trees.
And if you’re not sure what you’ve found, a Dinosaur Park staff member like Max Bovis, one of 6 volunteers, will help you identify it. Then there’s Dr. Peter Kranz, a local paleontologist, who makes his way around the park in a paleontologist hat so weathered you know this man means serious business. (He’s also the president of the Dinosaur Fund, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that supports dinosaur fossil research.)
Dinosaur Park isn’t the only place to go dinosaur-hunting, either. More than 237 National Park Service areas preserve fossils. And dozens of US public parks allow hands-on digging. So you don’t have to wait for the next Sandy to start looking.