Dig Dinosaurs at Dinosaur Park

Photo | Pam Schipper More than 300 people helped paleontologists and Dinosaur Park’s trained volunteers look for fossils at the park’s Aug. 3. open house.

Photo | Pam Schipper
More than 300 people helped paleontologists and Dinosaur Park’s trained volunteers look for fossils at the park’s Aug. 3. open house.

Looking for a unique end-of-summer day trip? Look no further than Dinosaur Park, a site in Laurel under the Maryland National Capital Park & Planning Commission. They don’t have a T-rex, but one just as cool—Acrocanthosaurus, a close relative of Allosaurus, which is about 38 feet long (about average for Tyrannosaurus rex). Acrocanthosaurus is the largest meat-eating dinosaur to live in the United States.

Local paleontologist, University of Maryland professor and finder of the first dinosaur track reported in Maryland since 1895, Dr. Peter Kranz said that most children between 2.5 and 7 years of age develop a strong interest in dinosaurs … and he has never lost his. Children of all ages are fascinated with the immense size and existence of beasts that we have only read about and experienced dramatically through popular culture. Kranz fosters this interest through his Dinosaur Fund, a committee of a larger environmental organization that promotes and protects dinosaur resources in the area, as well as through his instructive affiliation with Dinosaur Park.

Literature from the 19th century detailing fossils found in Maryland, particularly in Emmitsburg and in Prince George’s County from 1858 to 1895, led Kranz to an area in Emmitsburg in 1998 where excavations for a housing project were ongoing. His find was a single print on a 50-pound slab of red sandstone—the footprint of a three-toed beast called a Prosauropod. An additional 20 small dinosaur footprints were found on sandstone in a rock quarry less than a mile from where Kranz found his print. He continues to research, write and teach about paleontology through his work with the Dinosaur Fund, which runs various camps throughout the year, and his work at Dinosaur Park.

The park is a preserve for one of the most important dinosaur fossil sites east of the Mississippi River. It presents various programs to search for fossils, although no digging or removal of finds is permitted. Recent visitors found plant matter fossils and lignite (essentially a tree that over the years has turned into coal). Volunteers said the lignite was from the era of the dinosaurs about 9.5 million years ago. Another volunteer guide shared a fossilized turtle shell he found on-site, and others located fossilized clams.

Dinosaur Park is entirely outdoors on the side of a hill surrounded by corporate office buildings in an industrial park complex and includes a garden of Cretaceous-era plants and a climbable dinosaur skeleton playset. The best time to visit Dinosaur Park is after a rain when most fossils are found.

Dinosaur Park has the Maryland state dinosaur, the Astrodon johnstoni, the largest dinosaur in the eastern United States, weighing in at 50 tons and about 70 feet long. At the park, there is a life-size picture of the largest bone that ever came out of Dinosaur Park. Discovered in 1991, this Astrodon johnstoni upper leg bone was probably not even fully grown. You can see the actual fossil at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore.

The park hosts open houses on the first and third Saturdays of the month, noon to 4 p.m. Private groups can also arrange events. Dr. Kranz is the resident paleontologist at these events and was instrumental in developing the facility. More than 300 people attended a recent open house on Aug. 3. See more at www.pgparks.com/3259/Dinosaur-Park.

There is still time to “dig the end of summer” at the Aug. 26 Dinosaur Camp. Kranz runs the camp through his Dinosaur Fund organization. “We meet at different locales every day to dig—vacant lots, roads and beaches within 25 miles of the DC area. The rest of the time is spent at museums viewing exhibits and educating campers on what they want to know about dinosaurs. It is an opportunity to find fossils and learn how paleontologists do their jobs.” This camp grew out of a school program and is a family week-long day camp. Those under 3 and over 18 are not charged for participation. Find details and sign up at www.dinosaurfund@juno.com.

Upcoming open houses at Dinosaur Park, 13100 Mid-Atlantic Boulevard in Laurel, are on Aug. 17 and Sept. 7. “As a scientist and researcher, I’m constantly looking—that is how fossils are found.” Kranz noted that most fossils found today are located in desert areas where vegetation is limited and there is an abundance of exposed rock. Populated areas are covered but are constantly appearing and reappearing as construction changes the terrain and exposes rock to the open. Since there are only about 20 people in the United States working on dinosaur and fossil research, Kranz said that most fossils are found by ordinary people. Who knows … you may be the next Marylander to find an Astrodon johnstoni fossil!