A Smithsonian Paleontologist Suggests His Evotourism Sites

For even more ideas on where to take an evolution vacation, we turned to one of our own dinosaur experts

Matthew Carrano
Matthew Carrano, a paleontologist with the National Museum of Natural History, recommends Dinosaur State Park in Connecticut for those evotourists interested in dinosaurs. Stephen Voss

To evotourists interested in dinosaurs, Matthew Carrano, a paleontologist with the National Museum of Natural History, recommends Dinosaur State Park, in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, just south of Hartford. The park boasts one of the largest displays of dinosaur tracks in the world. In 1966 a bulldozer operator discovered the first of the footprints in a slab of gray sandstone. The construction project was sidelined and further excavations at the site revealed a swath of 2,000 footprints. About 1,500 of the tracks were reburied so that they might be preserved, while 500 remain visible, protected by a geodesic dome built in 1977. Paleontologists surmise that 200 million years ago, in the early Jurassic period, a dinosaur called Dilophosaurus made the tracks, which measure 10 to 16 inches in length and are spaced 3.5 to 4.5 feet apart.

“When I was first there I was probably about 9 years old,” says Carrano. “It was just very dramatic. The footprints are on the spot where the dinosaur stepped. They are still there. Seeing them was almost more like being close to the living animal.”

Footprints capture action in the fossil record. “The unusual thing about dinosaurs is that most begin as two-legged animals. In the modern world, there are just very few things that walk on two legs,” says Carrano. The tracks at the edge of what was once an ancient lake date to the early history of dinosaurs, so they show how dinosaurs were moving and taking advantage of that adaptation. “You can see that some of them in areas where the lake was deeper were kind of swimming. In some places, they would sit down, and you can see there is a little butt print of a dinosaur,” says Carrano. “It is a very evocative place.”

A visit to Dinosaur State Park, he adds, emphasizes the evolution that the landscape has undergone. “You walk out of the building, and you are in Connecticut in 2011. You walk in the building, and you are in Connecticut 200 million years ago. So it is like time travel, without going anywhere,” says Carrano. “You can get a sense of how this place was different. Nothing has moved. But everything has changed.” To help in that regard, the park has an “Arboretum of Evolution” on its grounds with more than 250 plant species, all members of plant families that thrived during the reign of the dinosaurs.

Bucket List

Carrano picks some must-see sites he hopes to visit one day:

Dinosaur Valley State Park
Glen Rose, Texas

Dinosaur footprints have been found in almost every country, “but the really cool ones are ones that have become famous for showing something specific,” says Carrano. At Dinosaur Valley State Park, about 50 miles southwest of Fort Worth, scientists found a 113-million-year-old trackway showing a 40-foot-long theropod, a bipedal carnivore, stalking its prey, a 60-foot-long herbivorous sauropod.

Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry
Elmo, Utah

Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, in central Utah, is basically a “giant trap” filled with dinosaur bones, says Carrano -- more than 12,000 bones, in fact. In the past century, researchers have found specimens of more than 70 dinosaurs, mostly the meat-eating species Allosaurus, at the quarry, making it the densest deposit of Jurassic dinosaur bones in the world.

“It has been a big debate about why they are all there,” says Carrano. Did the dinosaurs get mired in a muddy bog? Did they drink contaminated water? Paleontologists have also theorized that the dinosaurs died of thirst near an evaporating water hole, drowned in a flood or perished and washed up on a sandbar in a riverbed. In a building constructed over a portion of the quarry, visitors can see the pile of dinosaur bones. “I have always wanted to see that,” says Carrano.

Chances are, he adds, “If you go to a museum and see an Allosaurus, you probably are seeing one from this quarry.” More than 60 museums around the world display skeletons unearthed from the site

Matthew Carrano of the National Museum of Natural History studies the evolutionary history of predatory dinosaurs. He excavates fossils from field sites in Wyoming and Montana, Chile, Madagascar and Zimbabwe. He also analyzes bones already in museum collections. His goal is to trace which dinosaur species evolved from which other species, from their rise in the Triassic period to their extinction 160 million years later in the Cretaceous. “Did animals get bigger or smaller? Did they start in one place and move to another?” says Carrano. “To answer any sort of evolutionary question, you need this family tree to start.”

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