NASA’s Nodosaur Track

Over 110 million years ago, dinosaurs roamed where a major NASA facility now sits

The nodosaur Animantarx
The nodosaur Animantarx. While this dinosaur is from Utah, it represents the sort of dinosaur that made the track found at the Maryland NASA campus. Photo by Kabacchia, image from Wikipedia

Last fall, fossil tracker Ray Stanford and paleontologists David Weishampel and Valerie Deleon announced something wonderful–a rare impression of a baby ankylosaur. The delicate specimen, officially named Propanoplosaurus marylandicus and on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, is an Early Cretaceous snapshot from Maryland that gives us a fleeting picture of how these armored dinosaurs started life. And the fossil is even more spectacular given the rarity of dinosaur bones found in the area. Paleontologists have discovered teeth and bone fragments over the years–including bones from “Capitalsaurus” in Washington, D.C.–but even partially complete skeletons remain elusive. Dinosaur tracks are far more common, and, according to the Washington Post, Stanford may have discovered a footprint of an adult ankylosaur in an unexpected place.

As reported by Brian Vastag, the print sits on the property of a NASA‘s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Stanford stumbled across the lone track earlier this summer and recently led NASA scientists out to the site to show them the fossil depression. Though the track has started to erode, and may have been damaged by a lawnmower, the roughly 112-million-year-old track still shows four toe imprints. According to David Weishampel, the track could have been made by a nodosaur–a member of the heavily-armored ankylosaur subgroup that lacked tail clubs but often sported prominent spikes along their sides.

Officials at the NASA campus are already moving to protect the fossil, and they plan to bring in paleontologists to look for other dinosaur tracks. The NASA scientists want to keep the site a secret, Vastag reports, but ultimately want the public to be able to see the track. What happens next will depend on the laws that regulate how fossils can be removed and curated. But it seems that there is more than just a lone track at the spaceflight facility. When Stanford took the NASA scientists out to the site, he and other researchers found several more possible dinosaur tracks. The high-tech NASA facility may have been founded on a Cretaceous dinosaur stomping ground.

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