Geology/Biology Instructor Nathan Van Vranken was in for a big surprise when he visited Dinosaur Park in Laurel, MD. The park staff needed his help to excavate a 120 million-year-old dinosaur bone more than a foot long. The find was a huge win for Dinosaur Park where most fossils found are typically bony scraps or teeth.
When West Virginia University Potomac State College visiting instructor of geology and biology, Nathan Van Vranken, visited the Dinosaur Park in Prince George’s County, Md. on Sept. 7, he didn’t expect he would be digging up dinosaur bones.
The trip had originally been planned as a meet-and-greet with site paleontologist and program coordinator, John-Paul Hodnett. Being new to the area, Van Vranken was curious about regional fossil-bearing Cretaceous sites. For the past six years, Van Vranken has worked on similar sites in Texas, excavating fossils, looking through museum collections throughout the Midwest, and writing numerous papers on his discoveries.
Instead, when Van Vranken arrived, he found Hodnett and Max Bovis, a park staff member, marveling over a portion of a dinosaur metatarsal (a bone in the foot) that Bovis had discovered that morning. It was clear that it belonged to a theropod, the meat-eating dinosaurs from which birds evolved. Excitement was in the air as typically most fossils found at the site are small fragments or teeth. Hodnett offered Van Vranken the opportunity to excavate the remainder of the bone, which could then be taken to the Dinosaur Park lab for further study.
Two-and-a-half hours later, through careful, cautious work, Van Vranken had exposed the entire metatarsal, which was roughly thirteen inches long. The exact species of theropod the bone belonged to has not yet been determined, though several experts who have examined photographs of the material suggested affinities to ornithomimosaurs (ostrich-like dinosaurs), which are known from less complete remains from the same site and similarly aged localities along the East Coast. The material is awaiting further study by researchers.
For Bovis, the fossil’s discoverer, the metatarsal is another feather in his cap. That same day, he found many of the other vertebrate fossils which were recovered, from fish scutes to crocodile teeth. Fellow staff and volunteers commented that Bovis “has a nose for bones.” Bovis has uncovered more than a thousand fossils in this location during the past eight years he has worked at the park, many of which are quite significant finds.
It was an exciting day all around at Dinosaur Park, which had a record number of guests that day – more than 500. Van Vranken is looking forward to returning: “Dinosaur Park is a great site for education, outreach and paleontological projects. Having spent the past six years at similar locations, I think Dinosaur Park is one of the best representations of the mid-Cretaceous period on this side of the United States. Most people think dinosaur fossils are only excavated out west, in remote badlands, but here, they’re found practically in the backyard of Washington, D.C.”
Dinosaur Park is managed by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. The park provides free interpretive programs on the first and third Saturdays of each month, from noon to 4 p.m. For more information, you can visit their website at http://www.pgparks.com/3259/Dinosaur-Park.
For more information about WVU Potomac State College and the degrees we offer (including 21 STEM majors), visit www.potomacstatecollege.edu.
The bone came from the foot of a theropod dinosaur. Scale bar is one-foot-long. (Silhouette by Scott Hartman and PhyloPic, photo of bone by John-Paul Hodnett).