Meet Maryland’s Dinosaurs

Friday, April 20, 2018

Dinosaurs near Washington, D.C. (long-necked Astrodon johnstoni) left behind a trove of fossils overseen by Matthew Carrano. (Patrick O’Brien)

Go to just about any dinosaur exhibit and you are sure to see the fossilized remains of the fierce Tyrannosaurus rex. But what if you are more interested in the lesser-known Deinonychus, Tenontosaurus or Astrodon johnstoni, the official Maryland state dinosaur? Then, you will want to visit Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons.

From now until December 31, Calvert Marine Museum invites you to imagine modern-day Maryland as a tropical swampland inhabited by prehistoric giants engaged in an epic struggle for survival. Creating the illusion are more than 150 fossilized dinosaur bones plus informative text panels and colorful murals. The fossils come courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and private collectors.

“We put this exhibit together because not too many people realize we live in an area with significant dinosaur remains,” said museum paleontologist Donald J. Morgan III. “The dinosaur deposits found in Maryland are an important scientific discovery.”

What you won’t find here are large, life-like models.

“I was kind of disappointed they didn’t have big replicas of dinosaurs,” said eight-year-old dino-enthusiast Thomas Nolan.

Too bad, but too big. Maryland’s 20-ton state dinosaur — named ­johnstoni for dentist Christopher ­Johnston, who studied its teeth and coined the term Astrodon — would have collapsed the museum’s mezzanine. These “star-toothed” plant-eaters of the Early Cretaceous Period were more than 50 feet long and 30 feet tall. Their remains have been found in Prince George’s and Baltimore counties.

“It was still interesting,” the young critic allowed.

“My favorite thing is the skull,” Nolan said, referencing the sculpted replica of an adult Giraffatitan, a close relative of the Astrodon johnstoni. Both dinosaurs were sauropods, a class of large, four-legged plant-eaters with long necks and tails.

“Some of the fossils are over 60 million years old,” he added. “That’s kind of cool when you think about it.”

Even without a giant plastic statue towering over them, visitors can get some idea as to how large these prehistoric creatures were. A touchable replica of a fossilized footprint encourages you to compare your own hands to the foot of a Nodosaurus. The footprint of that armored plant-eater from the Late Cretaceous Period was found at Goddard NASA in Greenbelt. A carpet marked with the gait of the two-legged, meat-eating Allosaurus challenges you to use a simple math equation to determine the height of the animal.

Programming and interactive features of the exhibit are a work in progress, Morgan said. He plans to add a scavenger hunt and a make-a-dinosaur activity aimed at elementary and middle school students, and a more complicated dinosaur-measuring activity for high school students and adults.

Calvert Marine Museum is a good fit for such an exhibit.

“We are known for our collection of fossils from Miocene deposits,” Morgan said. The museum’s spacious Paleontology Gallery houses its permanent collection, including a life-size replica of a ferocious-looking Megalodon, a prehistoric shark whose teeth are often found at nearby Calvert Cliffs.

In the small lab accessible from the Paleontology Gallery, knowledgeable staff and volunteers chat about dinosaurs with visitors and help them make connections between the ancient reptiles and animals living today.

Nolan, his sister Elizabeth and other young visitors were excited to hold Megalodon teeth as intern Sean Conner asked, “What’s your favorite dinosaur?”

Everyone has a different answer.