Near the sprawl of the Capital Beltway, an amateur paleontologist found what he says are the first footprints ever uncovered of a 6-foot-long (2-meter-long) plant-eating dinosaur that roamed the Earth about 100 million years ago.
In addition to being the first tracks ever found of the dinosaur, the footprints are the first evidence that members of the Hypsilophodon family roamed what is now Maryland.
“It was thrilling, in a sense, because it became a world first,” Ray Stanford, who has spent 10 years digging in streambeds near the Interstate 95 corridor, told The (Baltimore) Sun.
The discovery appears in the latest issue of Ichnos, an international journal for discoveries of tracks and “traces” of ancient plants and animals, rather than their fossil remains. The paper detailing the find was co-written by geologists Robert E. Weems of the U.S. Geological Survey and Martin G. Lockley of the University of Colorado at Denver.
Identified as zephyrosaur
The footprints are from a dinosaur that either resembled or was a species known as Zephyrosaurus schaffi. The species of Hypsilophodon is known to have lived in Montana during the same early Cretaceous period.
Zephyrosaur means “lizard of the west wind.” The dinosaur that produced the Maryland tracks has been named Hypsiloichnus (pronounced HIP-sillo-IK-nus) marylandicus, meaning “trace of a Hypsilophodon from Maryland.”
Members of the Hypsilophidon family walked on their hind legs most of the time but dropped to all fours to rest, eat or drink. Stanford’s prints each reveal the animal in that position, with a smaller front foot set just in front of its larger hind foot.
“I always think of them as the Mesozoic equivalent of rabbits,” Weems said in an interview published Thursday in The Sun.
Species of Hypsilophodon lived from the late Jurassic period about 150 million years ago to the end of the Cretaceous period and the close of the dinosaur age about 65 million years ago.
While fossils of the dinosaur have been found in Montana and England, none had ever been found in Maryland.
Seen in streambed
Stanford, 66, said he found the first Hypsilophidon track in the summer of 2001 while walking a streambed near the Capital Beltway in Prince George’s County after heavy rains had exposed new rocks in its banks.
“Even from a distance I could tell we had something important,” Stanford said.
The rock bore a larger, four-toed print from a rear foot instead of the usual three toes, with a much smaller, five-toed print just in front of it instead of the usual four toes.
“It puzzled me for a time, until I looked through my dinosaur book that has the skeletal anatomy. I was astonished. It was a perfect match.”