Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Dinosaur State Park

Dinosaur State Park, Connecticut

This real-life Jurassic Park makes a perfect paleontological pit stop. Remember those Arthur Murray dance school maps showing where to place your feet? Dinosaur State Park presents the prehistoric version. Nearly 200 million years ago, dinosaurs walked and even swam here, on what was the muddy shore of an ancient lake. Meat eaters and plant eaters, including perhaps the giant and genuine manifestation of Michael Crichton's fantasy "spitter" Dilophosaurus, ambled through what is now a convenient highway detour.

Beneath a geodesic dome, talented exhibit designer David Seibert has created a lively, theatrical display around a splendid fossil trackway. A footprint quarry at least three times as large lies unexcavated beneath the lawn.

 Illuminated by spotlights, hundreds of tracks on a tilted stone slab can be seen from above; a glass-sided walkway passes directly over some of the tracks. All the footprints look fresh, thanks to a thin sheet of mica that covered and preserved the fossil-bearing sediments. Several curious prints show that large meat eaters pushed off the ancient bank to swim in the shallow water. Even in mid-summer, crowds disperse inside the spacious dome, so take time to admire the handsome exhibits, from murals depicting Triassic and Jurassic environments to a full-sized sculpture of Dilophosaurus.

Whether this was the animal that frequented the footprint-rich Connecticut River Valley way back when remains uncertain, but its bones have been found from Arizona to China (at that time the world had only a single, giant landmass). Dinosaurs cannot be easily identified from footprints alone, so those without any associated bones receive an "ichnogenus," a name based solely on the prints. In the case of these 20-foot-long carnivores, the ichnogenus is Eubrontes. And though enigmatic, in a state full of footprints but lacking major bone beds, Eubrontes is the official state fossil.

Tracks from two other dinosaurs are displayed here, too, one a small Coelophysis-like carnivore, the other a prosauropod-like plant eater, about 15 feet long. A few intriguing bone bits on display include a cast of the first dinosaur fossil found in North America, a fragment collected in 1818.

You can watch a video of the trackway excavation, which followed the accidental discovery of the site in 1966 by a building crew. A simulated road cut lines one wall, showing how the rocks in the region formed. Pull open drawers in the rock wall to reveal hands-on samples that, along with punchy and informative text panels, make understanding the geology of the Connecticut Valley a cinch.

Don't miss the outdoor exhibits: a clever "walk" through Earth's history and a peaceful path through a streamside forest planted with descendants of Mesozoic trees, including ginkgoes, ferns, and evergreens. Best of all is a do-it-yourself footprint casting factory. Bring a container of vegetable oil and a large bag of plaster, and the park will supply rags and rings to make a dinner-plate-sized cast of a three-toed dinosaur track - yours to keep. Just what made these footprints we'll never know, but the animal that slogged through this Mann's Chinese Theater of the Mesozoic certainly deserves to be a celebrity.

Continued in: Diggin' For Dinosaurs - Fort Worth Museum

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