Dinosaur Footprint Discovered at NASA Campus

Scientists at the NASA complex located at Greenbelt, Maryland have a more down to Earth scientific distraction to study as it has been revealed that a fossilised dinosaur footprint has been discovered in the grounds.  For the scientists and support teams that work at the Goddard Space Flight Centre the elephant foot-sized trace fossil has afforded them a glimpse into the environment approximately 112 million years ago (Aptian/Albian  faunal stage of the Cretaceous) when huge, heavily armoured, herbivorous dinosaurs roamed the area.

The trace fossil, a single footprint is slightly eroded, the back of the foot, the heel area is crumbling away but a careful examination reveals four distinct toe marks at the front, a print of a dinosaur walking over soft mud back in the Cretaceous geological period.   It is not just natural processes that have caused the print to become less than pristine, palaeontologists and ichnologists (scientists who specialise in studying fossil tracks and track-ways), have remarked that parts of the footprint seem to show damage from a recent encounter from a grass strimmer.  It seems one of the gardeners may have clipped the thirty-five centimetre wide trace fossil when they were cutting down weeds.

The fossil was found by Ray Stanford, an expert in finding dinosaur tracks on the eastern side of the United States.  For Ray, finding this particular specimen came after a hunch to explore a part of the Goddard site, where previously he had found tantalising evidence of a dinosaur footprint.  The fragment of a print he had found a few years ago, represented an unknown type of fast-running but small meat-eating dinosaur.  That fossil indicated to Ray that the conditions had been right for permitting footprint preservation, so it was simply a question of returning to the area to explore the site a little more carefully to see what might turn up.  His chance came when he and his wife were at the Goddard Centre’s cafe enjoying lunch back on June 25th, when Ray made his excuses and set out to examine the grassy, overgrown bank where the previous fossil discovery had occurred.

Keen Fossil Hunter Ray Stanford – Shows the Trace Fossil

Revealing the Evidence

Picture Credit: Woodward/Washington Post

The print is believed to have been made by the back left foot of a Nodosaurid, a member of the dinosaur clade known as the Thyreophora – armoured dinosaurs.  Nodosaurids are generally similar to the better known Ankylosaurs.  However, they were more primitive and lacked the club-like projection on the end of their tails.  Most of these types of dinosaurs had body armour that consisted of spines and spikes and their narrow snouts indicate that Nodosaurs were specialised low browsers.  Fossils of these types of dinosaur have been found in Europe (including England) and North America.

An Illustration of a Typical Nodosaurid Dinosaur

An Armoured “Tank” of a Dinosaur

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

Ray Stanford has made a specialism out of studying dinosaur track-ways on the eastern side of the United States, however, he has a special affinity for finding Nodosaur remains.  This type of plant-eating dinosaur was not known from the strata of Maryland, however, Stanford has found a number of Nodosaur tracks indicating that these elephant-sized animals were present in the region and he and colleagues from Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, Maryland) discovered the fossilised remains of a baby Nodosaurid near to the University of Maryland Campus.  This baby, the first juvenile Nodosaur fossil to be found represented a new species and it was named Propanoplosaurus marylandicus.  This unique dinosaur fossil is now part of the fossil vertebrate collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (Washington D.C.).

To read more about the dinosaur tracks and footprints found in Maryland: Dinosaur Tracks Found Close To Washington D.C.

A team of NASA officials and representatives of the media were taken to the see the single footprint on Friday by Stanford.  It has been speculated that from the shape and deformation of the print the dinosaur was moving relatively quickly when it left the impression of its back left foot in the soft sediment.  Ray speculated that this dinosaur could have been running away from a meat-eating dinosaur.

For Alan Binstock, the Goddard site’s Architect and Facility Manager, the print might cause him something of a headache.  As far as he could recall no dinosaur fossils had ever been found on any of the other nationwide NASA locations but plans would be put in place to ensure that no trophy hunters or curious amateur palaeontologists could remove the print from the location.

Jennifer Groman, NASA’s federal preservation officer, more used to dealing with space age issues was part of the inspection team last Friday.  It is going to be her responsibility to safeguard the footprint whilst it remains on NASA property.

She commented:

“It’s not something I want to make a tourist attraction at this point.  We don’t want people barreling down there with shovels.  We can’t have anyone pick it up and take it off property.”

The site will remain secure for the time being.  Officials at NASA are working with a team of palaeontologists who intend to undertake a more thorough and protracted examination of the location to see what else might be found there.  Who knows, as NASA’s mission to Mars searches for signs of life on the amongst the Martian rocks, on a grassy bank at Goddard Flight Centre, a team of palaeontologists assisted by NASA’s space scientists might be shedding light on the exotic yet long extinct life forms that once roamed the eastern coast of America.

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