Maryland's new dinosaur park near Laurel has been opened for public prospecting on just two Saturday afternoons so far, and already one of the visitors' finds is headed to the Smithsonian Institution.
On Saturday, a 9-year-old girl from Annandale, Va., picked up a small fossil bone that experienced dinosaur hunters say probably was a vertebra from near the end of a meat-eating "raptor's" tail.
Gabrielle Block, a fourth-grader at Canterbury Woods Elementary, found the relic during a visit with her parents, Greg and Karin Block, and younger sister, Rachael, 7. They were scouring debris that rains have washed out of the ancient deposit, on the site of an old clay mine and General Shale Co. brick factory.
"I looked on top [of the dirt], got a handful and sorted through it," Gabrielle recalled. When she spied the fossil, she took it to her mom.
"It did look like something," Karin Block said. "It had little holes, like the marrow part of the bone."
She said Gabrielle was "very excited."
Rachael was happy for her sister, but, as the budding paleontologist of the house, she kind of wished she'd found the fossil herself. She'll get another chance at discovery when the family returns to the park on Dec. 5.
Gabrielle's find was small, perhaps a half-inch in diameter. But its discovery is a big deal to David Hacker, an experienced amateur paleontologist who has worked the Muirkirk site for years.
"It's a big deal in that this little girl, who has never hunted for fossils before, found something. I didn't find my first vertebra out there for several years," he said. "How important it is to science is yet to be determined." That will be the job of experts at the Smithsonian, who will identify and keep all significant fossils found at the park.
The fossils are relics of the Cretaceous period, perhaps 110 million years ago. The area then was tropical or sub-tropical "bayou country," with slow-moving rivers and lakes filled with crocodiles, turtles and fish. The dinosaurs lived on higher ground nearby, and when they died, their remains sometimes washed into the water, where they were covered by mud and later fossilized.
The 7.5-acre park was donated to the county by Dallas-based Jackson-Shaw, the developer of the adjacent industrial park. It was dedicated late last month. It is open to the public from noon until 4 p.m. on the first and third Saturdays of each month.
More than 30 people showed up for the first session on Nov. 7, and right away someone discovered a fossil conifer cone, according to Peter Kranz, a Washington geologist who is running the sessions for the Prince George's County Department of Parks and Recreation.
More than 40 people turned out this past Saturday. Kranz, who lobbied for such a park for two decades, was delighted by both the turnout and the discoveries.
"It was better than I'd hoped," Kranz said. Even so, "this is not where I want it to be yet." He still wants to add restrooms, exhibit space and more activities. "I want this thing to move ahead, and the way to get it moving ahead is things like this - when people hear about things being found regularly."