It’s difficult for me to resist roadside dinosaurs. I probably should invest in an “I brake for dinosaurs” bumper sticker at this point. So when I realized that I’d be passing close to Connecticut’s Dinosaur State Park, my plans were set. I hopped in the car and sped up the highway to the Jurassic.
I used to see glimpses of the park in Connecticut tourism commercials when I was a kid living in New Jersey. They featured a fleeting glimpse of a big, snaggle-toothed Dilophosaurus – a double-crested carnivore that was still relatively new to science at the time, and one of my favourite dinosaurs. But I never got my chance to see the sculpture up close. Now, four years after I moved to the west, I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to fulfill my childhood wish.
I’m sure Dinosaur State Park is beautiful in the spring and summer. As it was, an ice-crusted layer of snow covered everything, but the short road to the parking lot. Being that my sneakers are not very well insulated against wet or cold, I decided to forgo wandering the nature trails and I headed straight for the bright white dome that houses the park’s museum.
Looking like a slice off the top of Disney’s Spaceship Earth, the dome has been in place since 1977. It replaced several temporary shelters that were torn apart by winds more powerful than any theropod’s roar. And the reason for the structural shuffle is because the museum isn’t a set of displays that could go up just anywhere. The dome houses dozens of dinosaur tracks left in the rock where they were found.
As with many important moments in the history of paleontology, the site’s discovery was an accident. In the heat of a late August day in 1966, bulldozer operator Edward McCarthy flipped a block of sandstone to find a large, three-toed footprint. It was the hallmark of a dinosaur that inhabited prehistoric Connecticut about 190 million years ago. And it wasn’t a one-off. Amateurs and experts quickly found more footprints, and the state government acted quickly to protect the ichnological treasure trove. The museum stands over a portion of the dinosaur stomping ground as it was uncovered.
After edging past the dinosaur-crammed displays of the gift shop, I walked up to a railing overlooking the tracksite. I’ve hardly seen a more beautiful display. Backed by a mural of a Jurassic lakeshore, the tracks radiated out in all directions on the stone below. And the museum was perfectly dim. Most of the illumination came from banks of lights along the bottom of the museum’s walkways, placed at just the right angle for light and shadow to bring out each track in high relief. I was so gleeful that I wanted to jump down and press my nose to the sandstone to see the details up close, but, being that the museum staff would frown on such bad behavior, I stayed on the prescribed path.
Thankfully, the museum’s displays offer plenty to look at. Isolated tracks and trackways are carefully laid out and labelled, representing other dinosaurs, proto-crocodiles, and other creatures that lived in the area at around the same time. Not all have been found at the site itself – other than a few fish fossils, a docent later told me, only dinosaur footprints have been found on the exposed stone floor – but they help complete the picture of what life was like here at the dawn of the Jurassic.
And the museum provided plenty of general information about what dinosaurs were and what we can tell about their tracks. While it was old news for me, I was still pleased to see entire displays devoted to telling the difference between different dinosaur groups and how to pick out the traces of dinosaurs that were running, walking, and moving in herds. And the fact that they had a “dinorama” of miniature Triassic and Jurassic organisms only heightened my nostalgia for the fossils of the eastern sandstone.
The Dilophosaurus waited around the final bend. It didn’t look quite as cutting-edge as when I was a kid. The poor dinosaur looked a little thin, and its hands were faced palms-down instead of palms-up as they should have been. But I still stood there for a long while, looking over its scaly hide and wondering if such a dinosaur really left all those big footprints preserved below.
You see, the prehistoric conditions that allowed for the preservation of dinosaur tracks often didn’t preserve bone. No one has found dinosaur bones in the track-bearing layers of Dinosaur State Park, and dinosaur skeletons are very rare in the Early Jurassic rock of the Connecticut Valley. (Anchisaurus is one of the remarkable exceptions.) In fact, terrestrial, Early Jurassic rocks across North America are typically rich in tracks but poor in skeletons. Much of what we know about life at this time comes from tracks rather than bones.
So why Dilophosaurus? The dinosaur lived at about the right time, if not the right place. Found in the Kayenta Formation of Arizona, Dilophosaurus lived around the time that the big tracks in Connecticut – as well as those on display in St. George, Utah – were impressed into the sediment. The double-crested theropod is a useful proxy for the sort of dinosaur that left the tracks, even if we can’t tell whether it’s the right species. Maybe someone will eventually find the bony remains of the dinosaur that left the tracks, but, for now, Dilophosaurus is a suitable stand-in.
As transfixing as the restored Dilophosaurus was, though, I had to spend a little more time staring at the tracks. What initially looked like a chaotic dinosaur dance party started to dissolve into order. There were trackways crisscrossing the ancient lakeshore, some more relaxed and others moving with purpose back and forth across the sand. There were even a few swim tracks left by dinosaurs who visited when the lake was a little higher, scratches and divots attesting to each stroke of their powerful legs. The site didn’t cover dead history. Each track screamed of vibrant dinosaurian life.