Jurassic Maine: Digging for the state’s lost dinosaur past

Actor Chris Pratt is surrounded by velociraptors in a scene from the movie “Jurassic World.” (Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment image distributed by The Washington Post)

Actor Chris Pratt is surrounded by velociraptors in a scene from the movie “Jurassic World.” (Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment image distributed by The Washington Post)

The movie “Jurassic World” — the latest in a series of thrillers about genetically re-engineered dinosaurs populating ill-advised amusement parks — smashed Hollywood records by opening with a gross of more than $520 million worldwide over the weekend.

The movie’s success is the latest sign that people remain fascinated by the long-extinct beasts 200 years after their fossilized bones were first recognized.

But which of those prehistoric creatures roamed the land that is today Maine?

That’s a surprisingly hard question to answer.

While other parts of the world have become paleontological hot beds, with scientists pulling complete dinosaur skeletons out of the ground, Maine was left declaring the remnant of a primitive fern its state fossil.

This all goes back to the geological histories of the respective places.

“The most dinosaur fossils and the greatest variety of species have been found high in the deserts and badlands of North America, China and Argentina,” explains Molika Ashford of the website LiveScience.com. “Desert environments keep fossils from being covered by plant matter, and without trees and soil, sand and rock are all that stand between an archaeologist and a 100-million-year-old pile of mineralized dinosaur. A good dinosaur fossil site requires an area of sedimentary rocks, which are formed from compressed layers of silt and clay laid down over time.”

(Courtesy of Maine Dept. of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry)

(Courtesy of Maine Dept. of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry)

The area that would become Maine, however, was the location of a geological purging of sorts, which wiped out its fossil record from the period stretching from about 360 million years ago to less than 1 million years ago.

The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry provides background on this phenomenon on its website, explaining:

“This gap [in the fossil record] is most likely the result of episodes of mountain-building and erosion which removed the rocks formed during this time period. Most recently, continental glaciers scoured the landscape, removing more sediment and rock. While this erosion was helpful in exposing the older, Paleozoic rocks, it completely removed all of the Mesozoic material and a large portion of the Cenozoic record.”

And guess who came lumbering (or however they moved) through Maine during that several-hundred-million-year blindspot in the state’s fossil record?

Right. The dinosaurs. You could call it Maine’s “Lost World,” pun very much intended.

The Department of Agriculture continues: “[W]hile it is quite likely that dinosaurs inhabited the area that became Maine, their remains will probably never be found here.”

But maybe we can look at some of the nearby areas, which may have had similar climates during the proverbial Age of the Dinosaurs and could offer reasonable ideas of which of the beasts lived here.

The Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts has proven to be fertile ground for fossilized dinosaur tracks, for instance.

According to operators of the Nash Dinosaur Track Site & Rock Shop, a tourist attraction established by Connecticut River Valley dino researcher Carlton Nash, tracks matching the feet of the feared Dilophosaurus were among those found there.

Dilophosaurus skeleton (Flickr photo by Kumiko / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ )

Dilophosaurus skeleton (Flickr photo by Kumiko / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ )

The 23-foot-long carnivorous Dilophosaurus was made famous in the first “Jurassic Park” movie, in which it spit venom at Wayne Knight’s character and killed him while he was trying to escape the park in a jeep.

The venom attack, along with the animal’s smaller size in the movie, were likely examples of Hollywood creativity, as scientists have found no evidence these dinosaurs were that small or had that power — but they were certainly fierce, and among the largest dinosaurs of the early Jurassic Period.

What did the meat-eating Dilophosaurus eat here in New England without any jeeps to hijack? Well, other Connecticut River Valley footprints — the so-called “Otozoum” tracks — are believed by many to have belonged to large bipedal herbivores that were the forefathers of the better-known sauropods, like the Brontosaurus and Brachiosaurus.

Fossilized bones of other bipedal carnivores, like the seven-foot-long Podokesaurus and something resembling the 10-foot-long Coelophysis, are also in Massachusetts’ fossil record.

Could they have been in Maine, too?

As for fan favorites like the late Cretaceous period’s Tyrannosaurus Rex and its rival three-horned Triceratops, despite some theories about the expansiveness of their habitat ranges, there’s still no evidence they lived in the area. Even if they migrated great distances from the western U.S. locations where their fossilized bones have been found, a body of water at the time divided what we know today as America.

They likely couldn’t have come any further east than the Rocky Mountains without swimming.

Kids at the Bangor State Fair in 2014 pat "Buster" a baby Tyrannosaurus Rex. The 80-pound special effects animatronic puppet was operated by puppeteer Eric Teas, of McKenzie, Tennessee. (BDN photo by Nok-Noi Ricker)

Kids at the Bangor State Fair in 2014 pat “Buster” a baby Tyrannosaurus Rex. The 80-pound special effects animatronic puppet was operated by puppeteer Eric Teas, of McKenzie, Tennessee. (BDN photo by Nok-Noi Ricker)