A massive slab of sandstone has given scientists an extremely rare peek into how dinosaurs, badger-like mammals and flying reptiles all interacted 100 million-plus years ago, in an area that would later become the suburbs of Washington.
To scientists’ shock, the 8.5-foot-long piece of rock was hiding in plain sight at a NASA facility’s parking lot.
The footprints were etched in the stone many millennia ago, but an amateur paleontologist, Ray Stanford, happened to stumble across the slab in 2012 as he dropped his wife off at work at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
‘I think it’s just tremendously exciting,’ Stanford said in a video describing the study.
The prints are a fraction of the size of a hand print and appear to come from theropod dinosaurs, which are smaller cousins of the T-rex, a veggie-eating sauropod, early mammals, as well as an armored nodosaur and her baby.
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Scientists have discovered what they deem to be the ‘largest known slab’ that has animal tracks on it ‘from anywhere in the world.’ The team identified 100 prints from at least 70 different mammals and dinosaurs, all traveling across the same piece of sandstone
Now, Stanford and a team of researchers have described their findings in a new paper, published Wednesday in the journal Scientific Reports.
Their findings give a fascinating glimpse into how dinosaurs and early mammals may have interacted.
‘We’re looking at the largest known slab that has animal tracks on it from anywhere in the world,’ said Martin Lockley, a geology professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, who co-authored the study, in a video describing the study.
‘I know of four or five sites in the whole age of dinosaurs that have mammal tracks and some of them only have one or two,’ Lockley added.
‘Here, we’ve got approximately 100 footprints on it,’ Lockley explained. ‘It’s amazing.’
The 8.5-foot-long slab of sandstone was discovered in the parking lot of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, not far outside the nation’s capital of Washington, D.C.
The 8.5-foot-long slab preserves a collection of footprints from early animals including squirrel-like mammals, plant-eating nodosaurs and flying reptiles that were close cousins of pterodactyls. A few footprints are from a mother dinosaur and her baby. It’s unclear what they were all doing there, though it’s possible that the dinosaurs were hunting the smaller mammals
Scientists discovered the rare slab of sandstone in a parking lot not far from a NASA facility. Pictured, the slab is shown at the time of discovery (A and B) and during excavation (C). The team built a fiberglass recreation of the fossilized remains (D) and found small tracks indicating that early mammals had traversed the 8.5-foot-long rock (E)
The spectacular piece of rock would have never been discovered had Stanford, 79, not come to Goddard to have lunch with his wife Sheila, who is also a co-author on the study.
Stanford spotted a piece of loose rock, made of iron-rich sedimentary material, sticking out of the grass and decided he should take a closer look, according to the New York Times.
He tipped NASA off to his findings and the agency sent climate scientist Compton Tucker, another co-author of the study, over to scan the site for additional remains using ground-penetrating radar.
A team of volunteers from Goddard helped Stanford and the other researchers unearth the entire slab of sandstone.
Upon closer examination, Stanford discovered that a number of theropods, which are smaller cousins of the T-rex, had walked across the rock alongside mammals the size of rodents.
Amateur paleontologist and dinosaur expert Ray Stanford (pictured) happened to stumble across the ancient slab of sandstone as he dropped his wife off for work at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Maryland
In other words, curiously, predators were mingling with their prey – and not necessarily for the purpose of hunting.
‘This was the real thing that hit me for a loop,’ Stanford told the Times. ‘To see them with their potential predators.’
In total, Stanford and the other scientists identified 100 prints from at least 70 different mammals and dinosaurs.
Lockley discovered that one of the mammal footprints may be particularly rare, signifying the ‘largest mammal track’ to have existed in the ‘age of dinosaurs.’
Typically, during the age of dinosaurs (or the Mesozoic Era), most mammals were about the size of small rodents.
But the track suggests the footprint may have been from an animal as big as a badger.
‘It’s very rare to find anything this big,’ Lockley explained.
Another print seems to come from a large, armored nodosaur and, closely behind it is a pair of prints from its offspring, trying to catch up to its mother.
‘What excites me is that this shows us the actual life and action of all this incredible diversity,’ Stanford said in video.
‘From the flying reptiles to the large dinosaurs, to the smaller, tiniest dinosaurs,’
‘In fact, it shows us not the dead, but that life is almost like a time machine,’
‘We can look at over two weeks of activity of animals and we can almost picture it, unlike if we were just looking at bones,’ Stanford added.
WHAT ANIMALS WERE PRESERVED IN THE WORLD’S LARGEST SLAB OF FOSSILIZED FOOTPRINTS?
A team of scientists discovered an 8.5-foot-long slab of sandstone in 2012
The discovery, now detailed in a research paper published on Wednesday, gives a fascinating glimpse into how dinosaurs and early mammals may have interacted.
Scientists identified 100 prints from at least 70 different mammals and dinosaurs, all traveling across the same piece of sandstone
Their analysis of the fossil prints shows a myriad of animals:
- Small mammals, likely the size of a badger
- Theropods, which are cousins of the T-rex
- A large, armored nodosaur and her baby
- Footprints of what could be a relative of the modern-day bird
Pictured, the scientists analyzed a pair of footprints left behind by a theropod, which are smaller cousins of the fearsome T-rex
But how were the footprints preserved? According to the scientists, in a ‘geologic instant.’
Somehow, a flood washed over the rock, preserving the muddy footprints in the rock forever.
Because no prints overlap, Lockley told the Washington Post that the tracks may have been imprinted and preserved in just a few days, or perhaps, a few hours.
‘What we have here is [the ability] to look deeply into an ancient time on earth,’ Stanford said.
‘I think it’s just tremendously exciting,’ he added.
The scientists created a fiberglass recreation of the fossilized remains that will remain on display at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, where it was first discovered.