Sunday, 26 August 2012

Dinosaur Footprints in NASA's Backyard

Just this month, NASA sent a rover over 200 million kilometres to the Red Planet, Mars, to investigate its geological past. The future looks bright as results of the numerous on board experiments reach Earth. Yet as the rover trundles its way across the barren red rocks of the Gale Crater, some palaeontological discoveries have been made a little closer to home.

The 110 to 112 million year old footprint of a nodosaur found in Maryland
Ray Stanford, an amateur palaeontologist who has published several papers, found a single footprint of a giant armored dinosaur in the grounds of NASA's Goddard Flight Centre in Maryland, USA. Stanford, together with David Weishampel from the John Hopkins University, identified the footprint as that of a quadruped, armored and spined dinosaur called a nodosaur.

A geological study of the area showed that the footprint was early Cretaceous in age, coming in at 110 to 112 million years old. Slowly, a picture emerges of what Maryland was like hundreds of millions of years ago. Stanford went on to find several footprints belonging to small carnivorous theropods. Other fossils found in the region show that it was once covered in giant pines and monkey puzzles.

When we put this evidence together, we discover a land inhabited by lumbering giants and quick footed predators stalking prey through the wet mud on an ancient forest floor. Fossils can show up in the most unexpected of places. The Goddard Flight Centre falls directly in the so-called Dinosaur Alley. The bones of an armored giant might just be recovered from the red rocks in Maryland just as the Mars Rover traverses over those on Mars.