Dinosaur discoveries are often associated with far-off places, but you don’t need to travel to the Gobi Desert of Mongolia or the pampas of Argentina to find fossils. Dinosaur Park in Laurel, Maryland – less than fifteen miles from the nation’s capital – is the most productive dinosaur fossil site in the eastern United States. It’s also one of the oldest – people have been finding dinosaur bones and teeth in Prince George’s County for more than 150 years.
The Dinosaur Park story began in 1858, when the Arundel clays of central Maryland were mined for siderite, or iron ore. African American miners working in open pit mines were the first to discover dinosaur fossils in Maryland. Geologist Phillip Tyson brought some fossil teeth recovered by the miners to the Maryland Academy of Sciences. Academy member Christopher Johnston recognized these teeth as similar to those of the dinosaurs that had recently been discovered in Europe. Johnston named Maryland’s first dinosaur Astrodon, meaning star tooth, because the teeth have a starburst shape in cross-section.
Fossil discoveries are still happening at Dinosaur Park today. Since 2009, the Archaeology Program at the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission has led regular fossil-hunting open houses at Dinosaur Park, during which visitors of all ages can work alongside paleontologists to find new fossils. There is no comparable opportunity anywhere in the eastern United States.
We’re thrilled by the tremendous success of the Dinosaur Park programs over the past five years. It is our great pleasure to share the process of scientific discovery with the eager and enthusiastic local community. Thanks to sharp-eyed citizen scientists, our collection of animal and plant fossils from Dinosaur Park now numbers in the thousands. The rarest and most important finds are housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, where they are studied by international experts. Many more fossils have been cataloged by Archaeology Program staff and are available to students and researchers.
Fossil from Dinosaur Park enhance our understanding of a relatively unknown time in Earth’s history called the Early Cretaceous Period (about 115 million years ago). In many ways, the Early Cretaceous marked the birth of modern world. In North America, the previously hot and tropical climate became cooler and drier, with pronounced seasons. Meanwhile, flowering plants first became widespread during the Cretaceous, replacing ancient fern and conifer forests and irrevocably transforming the ecosystem. Fossilized remains of plants and animals from Dinosaur Park help us understand how and why these important environmental transitions took place. They may even help us predict how our world will respond to climate change in the future.
We are happy to report that Dinosaur Park is about to get bigger. Several new facilities will be added this summer, including an outdoor classroom, a playground, and a comfort station. We’ll also be introducing new activities, new interpretive signs, and a mural by local artist Clarence Schumaker. Through the renovation and beyond, the Dinosaur Park Post will be our way to keep visitors informed about what’s new at the park, including new fossil finds, special events, and more. Stay tuned!