Kneeling on a mound of dirt, trowel in hand, Smithsonian fossil preparator Steve Jabo carefully removed the excess earth that surrounded an unidentifiable dinosaur bone.
"You don't want to just start plunging through it with big shovels," he said while he worked under a green tent Wednesday, Sept. 21 at the Laurel Dinosaur Park, 13201 MidAtlantic Blvd., to remove the object that had been exposed following this month's heavy rainfall.
After an hour, Jabo was still slowly digging and little by little the bone became more and more visible to the small crowd of observers huddled around the tent.
"It's kind of slow going through this muck," Jabo said.
Dave Hacker, the dinosaur park volunteer who found the bone and thought it may have been a limb, watched patiently.
"There's no limb going down in further," Jabo said as he reached the bottom side of the bone, nearly two hours after he started digging. "We don't see any broken bone surface."
With a half-smile and not much disappointment written on his face, Hacker said: "I wish it was 6 feet long."
"It might not look like much now, but it could be very interesting," Jabo responded.
The bone turned out to be less than a foot in length, weighing about three or four pounds, Jabo guessed.
Preparators (paleontologists who remove and stabilize found fossils for study or exhibition) believe the bone is a toe or a claw because the surface is solid and smooth all around. Because the fossil does not have a broken edge, preparators do not think it is a piece of a larger bone.
Two days later, after taking the bone back to the Smithsonian's fossil lab, preparators still weren't sure what they found.
"It's starting to look like a toe bone, or a claw, for a big sauropod," Smithsonian preparator Pete Kroehler said Friday, Sept. 23. "That's just a guess right now."
He said they hope to know for sure what the bone is within the next week.
Rain helped expose bone
Hacker found the bone about two weeks ago after the heavy rain caused by Tropical Storm Lee.
"There was a lot of erosion from the storm," he said. "We probably had eight or nine inches up here."
Given that most discoveries at the park occur after rain storms, "it's really not surprising something washed out," Hacker said.
He said he knew he had found a bone and not a rock because of its light color.
Most of the items found at the park are small bone fragments or teeth, but there have been a few larger discoveries, Hacker said.
In 1991, a 4-foot-long section of what was believed to be a 6-foot-long sauropod femur was found at the site. On Sept. 10, 2006, Mike Styer found a 2-foot-long theropod tibia.
"That was the last one here that needed to be collected using this method," Hacker said of the 2006 find, which also required Smithsonian preparators to come to the site and carefully dig it out. "Most things, we can just pick them up off the ground."
Though there have only been a few large bones found at the site, it's still a unique attraction.
"A terrestrial fossil site like this on the East Coast is rare," Hacker said. "It's probably the most productive one that I know of."
Prince George's County Council District 1 representative Mary Lehman, who was at the site when the preparators dug up the bone, agreed that the dinosaur park is a great gem for Laurel.
"This is still one of those best-kept secrets," she said.
Lehman said she is working with District 23 state Sen. Douglas Peters to get bond funding for the dinosaur park, which is owned by Prince George's County Park and Planning. Part of Peters' district includes South Laurel.
The funding, she said, could be used to pay for infrastructure improvements, such as a canopy for shade or running water so fossil hunters can wash their hands.
Laurel Dinosaur Park is open to the public the first and third Saturdays of every month with free admission.