I was six years old when I first heard about the town of Glen Rose, Texas.
It is mentioned in countless dinosaur science books as a very special town, indeed. Dinosaurs adorn the town center benches.
There are dinosaurs in the grocery store.
There are dinosaurs on the town square, supporting the Glen Rose Garden Club.
Weirdly enough, the town’s high school mascot is the tigers.
Huh. Well, in any case, dinosaurs abound in Glen Rose.
This quaint country stopover is more than just a cute little town with a dinosaur theme; it’s a place that is lodged in nostalgia for me, even though I had never stepped foot in the place. Until now.
So. Stepping and feet. That’s appropriate. See, Glen Rose is famous because it is the home of Dinosaur Valley State Park, which protects one of the most famous series of fossilized dinosaur footprints in the entire world.
Even better than your average fossilized dinosaur bones, dinosaur footprints are like having a snapshot into the daily life of a long gone animal. Trackways, series of footprints, are used to interpret dinosaur behavior, calculate trackmaker speeds, and to say a thing or two about the biomechanics of how dinosaurs squished their clawed feet into soft mud.
The tracks at Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose are especially well known, and they sparked the imagination of little chibi (that is, tiny) Tara (that is, me) because they were famously described by Roland T. Bird in the early 1940s.
Roland Thaxter Bird was a fossil trackway enthusiast and a contemporary of Barnum Brown, the paleontologist who discovered Tyrannosaurus rex. To say the least, these two guys were major players in the explosive growth of paleontology in the early- to mid-20th century in America.
Bird was drawn to the big, birdlike three-toed trackways in Glen Rose through local reports of the fossils, but he was surprised to find associated with these footprints a slew of even bigger prints in vaguely circular shapes. Some of these larger prints were the size of small washtubs, big enough for a toddler to bathe in. The Paluxy River, along which the tracks are found, often floods the prints with enough murky water for a child to actually be able to do so.
The three-toed trackways had been known from sites around the world for a hundred years prior to Bird’s first birthday. These kinds of tracks are made by carnivorous, or meat-eating, dinosaurs–that much had been settled. But what could have made the big, round washtub prints?
And why, in one particularly famous track sequence, did it look like a three-toe was following along next to a washtub?
The age old predator-prey dance, caught in stone. While there is some debate over whether this famous sequence of tracks actually represents two dinosaurs walking contemporaneously, or whether it was an active attack and defense–one animal with sharp teeth and bird feet, the other with a long neck and washtub elephant pad feet—it is nevertheless an extraordinary example of dinosaurs moving across soft, wet mud, at a steady pace, and with a possible instance of the bird-toed carnivore hopping to attack the long necked plant eater. At one point, the carnivore appears to skip a step. Perhaps it leapt to attack?
The famous and controversial predator-prey track sequence uncovered by Bird was the first scientifically documented occurrence of a sauropod trackway–those are the long necked, plant-chomping herbivorous dinosaurs. The trackway was excavated by Bird and his team and moved to its permanent home at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where it still resides today. The remainder of the tracks are left in situ, or in their original place, for visitors to enjoy and for the waters of the Paluxy to bathe and actually protect from the erosion of time.
The bird-like tracks, made by a fifteen-foot-tall sauropod-burger-loving carnivore, are technically called theropod tracks. The theropod dinosaurs included all meat eating dinosaurs, including T. rex, Velociraptor, and any other sharp-toothy two-legged land walking beast from the Jurassic Park series.
Even though the outdated but historically fascinating theropod model that sits next to the Dinosaur Valley State Park gift shop is a T. rex, the more likely culprit for these 108-million-year-old trackways is an animal similar to Acrocanthosaurus. Oh boy, now we’re getting into the tongue twisters.
The washtub prints, like those of giant, clawed elephants, were not “Brontosaurus” or Brachiosaurus or Apatosaurus (the story on why there is no Brontosaurus will have to wait for another day!), but more likely made by an animal similar to the early Cretaceous sauropod named Astrodon (Houston Astros fans–any name resemblance to the baseball team is only tangential, heh heh). The park calls Astrodon by the name Pleurocoelus, though technically Astrodon takes precedence. Phew, another post about dinosaur naming conventions might really be in order!
I did my undergraduate research on dinosaur trackways, so actually being able to visit a famous dinosaur trackway site like the Glen Rose site is really moving in a nerdy way.
Beyond all the scientific jargon, I want this post to get you jazzed about the park.
It is a beautiful place to camp and it is a really fascinating place to learn about the Earth’s past. There are very few places where you can place your hand in the mudstone that once touched a dinosaur’s skin.
The whole feel of the place really gives you goosebumps.
So if you are ever in central Texas, be sure to check out Dinosaur Valley State Park. You seriously won’t regret it, and the spirit of your own childhood will thank you.
What places or travels have truly inspired you to connect with nature or your own past? And hey, what’s your favorite dinosaur? Almost everyone has one, deep down. Tell us in the comments below!