GREENBELT, Md. - There is a slab of rock containing footprints of more species from the age of dinosaurs than any other previous find in the world and this discovery happened right in the D.C. area.
It was discovered by Ray Stanford, an amateur fossil hunter, several years ago in Greenbelt, Maryland, but the findings were officially published Wednesday.
Back in 2012, Stanford dropped his wife off at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center after a lunch date and then spotted what looked to be an interesting rock. This was a historic find that turned into an archeological dig.
Years later, Stanford is now celebrating with the world's leading authority on dinosaur tracks.
"I met Ray almost 20 years ago through a radio show," said paleontologist and dinosaur footprint expert Martin Lockley. "He called in to a radio show that I was on and asked if I would go and look at these dinosaur tracks that he found around the Washington D.C. area."
Lockley is glad he took that call. He ended up working on a number of discoveries with Stanford, who said he just has an eye for spotting fossils.
But the most significant find was an 8-foot-long, 3-foot-wide slab that ended up being pulled from Goddard Space Flight Center's property.
"This is a big deal," said Lockley. "We have more and better mammal footprints that really have been found anywhere in the world from this time period."
A cast of the slab contains about 70 tracks from the Cretaceous Period. There are footprints from different sized mammals, flying species and larger dinosaurs. The largest track belongs to an adult Nodosaur along with a baby track next to it. It's the large one that caught Stanford's eye on that day back in 2012.
"I could see that it was weathered," said Stanford. "It had not been something that recently was pushed up there, but it had smooth curves instead of sharp angles as if it didn't break up."
He added, "I recognized immediately it was a Nodosaur, but they are rare. But this is one of the best ones I have ever seen because of the wonderful squeeze up from the tremendous weight. These things are like four-legged tanks."
Once the slab was excavated and all of the other tracks found, Stanford said, "It was almost inspiring poetry. It was found at the space center where astrophysicists are looking into ancient time at the distant star systems, and yet you can look down at their footprints and see ancient time up to 110 million years ago."
NASA's scientists are quite interested as well. It appears all of the tracks were made within a few hours. The creatures were likely feeding or perhaps preying on others. Then a flood came in covering the area with silt and preserving it all.
Compton Tucker, the senior biospheric scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center, said way back then, the average global temperature was 80 degrees. Now, it's 59 degrees. Studying conditions in the past and how animals adapted helps scientists understand climate change and helps in exploring the solar system for the search of other life.
"Because if we look for other planets, we have no idea what sort of state we will find them in," said Tucker. "They could be in the age of dinosaur state like we find now and we have documented what we have found on our slab here."
"An astrophysicist told me, 'Ray, I walked by there every day of the week walking down the cafeteria for over four years and I hadn't noticed anything. Your mind is looking up into the distance of time and space. Mine is looking down at the distance of time and the Earth.'" Stanford said.