On Tuesday, the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) unveiled a remarkably well-preserved dinosaur footprint – and in less than two weeks, area residents will have the opportunity to see it for themselves.
VMNH Marketing and Public Relations Manager Zach Ryder said that the museum decided to unveil the footprint early so that people can begin getting excited for VMNH’s Dino Festival, which will take place on Friday, July 27 and Saturday, July 28.
“We’re going to have a lot of new things for people to check out,” Ryder said, including not only the new footprint, but also another new fossil that will be unveiled on the second day of the Dino Festival, along with plenty of dinosaur fossils that the museum has collected over the years that have never been put on public display.
The footprint that was unveiled Tuesday was collected by VMNH Assistant Curator of Paleontology Dr. Alex Hastings just a few weeks ago. The dig took place just outside of the town of Greybull, Wyoming in the “Morrison Formation,” a fertile source of dinosaur fossils dating from the late Jurassic period, about 150 million years ago. The dig was a joint partnership between VMNH and the University of Lynchburg.
The footprint, Hastings said, belonged to a sauropod, the family of giant, long-necked herbivorous (plant-eating) dinosaurs that includes diplodocus and brontosaurus.
“In the case of sauropods, they’re really big dinosaurs, so when they’re walking through the mud, they do a really good job at pressing that mud into compact layers,” Hastings said. “In lucky circumstances, those (footprints) will actually fossilize, along with the mud around it.”
Because these footprints are so heavily compressed, Hastings said, they will actually be stronger and heavier than the surrounding rock. Due to its weight, there was not much excavation required to obtain this particular footprint, he said, because it actually worked its way out from the surrounding earth and slid down a slope where Hastings and other team members found it intact.
“This is the first time I’ve seen one come out this well,” Hastings said. “Typically, sauropod footprints … break on impact. They’re not common at all, and I’ve never seen one this intact before. … In order to make sure it was nice and safe, though, we covered it in a layer of plaster in order to keep it in good shape when we had to take the long drive from Wyoming back to Virginia.”
When the plaster cast was removed on Tuesday morning, Hastings said, it was the first time the 150 million year old footprint had ever seen the light of day east of the Mississippi.
While Hastings has determined that the footprint belongs to a sauropod, he said, it’s difficult to tell exactly which species of sauropod left the print.
“Dinosaur footprints are a little bit difficult because a lot of the time – virtually every time – there are not bones associated with the footprints, so you don’t necessarily know which dinosaur goes with which footprint,” he said. “You can tell based on what is preserved in the footprint what type, so we definitely know it’s one of these sauropod dinosaurs, and we know it would have been something in the size range of diplodocus or brontosaurus; a really big, maybe 75 foot long animal weighing four tons easily. Beyond that, we can’t say exactly which species of sauropod dinosaur it is.”
Anyone wishing to see this piece of natural history in person will be able to do so during the Dino Festival, Hastings said.
“This is 100 percent the real sauropod dinosaur footprint,” Hastings said, not a cast. “The reason we’re doing this now is we want to have this out for people that come to the Dino Festival July 27 and 28. This will actually be ready and out for people to see and touch if they come to the festival.”
Dino Festival takes place Friday, July 27 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday, July 28 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
For more information, call 634-4141 or visit vmnh.net.