Every year, dozens of youngsters and their parents hunt for fossils at Peter Kranz's Dinosaur Camp in Fort Washington. If they're lucky, they wind up with a few clamshells and sharks' teeth.
But last month, a Virginia mother and her 8-year-old twins uncovered what every camper dreams of finding: the skeleton of an unknown reptile that roamed the Coastal Plain 60 million years ago.
Terri Fudala, 37, of Chantilly said she was walking through the well-known fossil site along a creek in Prince George's County with her twins, when something caught their eye.
"We saw a rock with an interesting thing on it," said Fudala, "So we peeked at it closer and decided it was very interesting."
Kranz, 59, a paleontologist who runs the Dinosaur Camp near Fort Washington Park, thought so, too. Later, he dug up the 2-foot-by-3-foot rock and found an almost complete skeleton embedded in its underside.
"Finding an articulated skeleton is a very rare occurrence," Kranz said, referring to bones in their natural arrangement.
Fort Washington, across the Potomac River from Mount Vernon, is on the Coastal Plain, which formed 120 million years ago. The layers of rock at the fossil site span the life of the plain, and the skeleton was in the 60 million-year-old layer.
At the time, Fort Washington was in shallow water with a subtropical climate, similar to the Florida Keys. It was home to shellfish, including clams, oysters and snails, and reptiles such as crocodiles and turtles.
One thing the skeleton was not is a dinosaur - those died out 65 million years ago. But it's a large reptile, Kranz said. Because it's embedded in rock, it has not been identified.
"We can take a good stab at it with some research because we can see bits of it," he said. But for an accurate identification, more skeleton must be exposed.
Kranz said he has asked researchers at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore to free the skeleton from the rock - a delicate operation that can take many years. During this process, the fossil will most likely find a home in the center's new Dinosaur Hall, he said.
About 90 percent of fossils in museums are found by ordinary people like Kranz's campers. The Dinosaur Camp gives all major finds to museums, said Kranz, who is president of the Dinosaur Fund, a nonprofit that promotes the study of fossils around the nation's capital.
Kranz has been teaching youngsters about dinosaurs in Maryland and Virginia schools and nature centers since the 1980s. Three years ago, he started the Dinosaur Camp, which brings parents and children together for a week of fossil hunting and trips to museums.
Kranz said his goal is to generate enthusiasm for dinosaurs, and he succeeded with Fudala and her son and daughter.
Like many boys his age, Matthew Fudala is fascinated by dinosaurs, but his mother was new to the dinosaur scene. "This is the first time I've ever done anything like this," she said.
For information about the Dinosaur Camp, www.dino saurfund.org, call 202-547-3326, or send an e-mail to dinosaur firstname.lastname@example.org.