A semi-professional dinosaur tracker stumbled on one of the most remarkable finds in paleontology in an unlikely site — the parking lot at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, just northeast of Washington, D.C. And had Ray Stanford not found it, it would’ve been obliterated to make way for the construction of a new building.
A study published Wednesday in the journal Scientific Reports details his remarkable findings: On the 8.5-foot-long slab of sandstone, researchers found 70-odd tracks, left there by what they estimate were eight different species. And they didn’t just find dinosaur tracks, but mammal footprints, too. It’s one of the only discoveries that proves big reptiles lived alongside our own ancestors millions of years ago.
Stanford, though sometimes referred to as an “amateur,” is actually an accomplished non-academic paleontologist. He wrote the book on dinosaur hunting in Maryland, and has been interviewed by the Smithsonian, thanks to his successes. He’s also now the lead author of a study on his own major paleontological find.
“We’re looking at the largest known slab that has mammal tracks on it, from anywhere in the world,” Dr. Martin Lockley, an emeritus geology professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, the second author on the study, said in a NASA-produced video, released on Wednesday.
Stanford made the discovery much like one might find a $20 bill on the street — he was on his way out of NASA’s parking lot after dropping off his wife, Sheila, who worked at Goddard, when he spotted what he thought might be a promising rock formation for dinosaur tracks about 90 feet away. He’d found a small footprint a few years prior on the Goddard grounds, and to him, this rock looked remarkably similar.
But inspecting the new slab, he was astounded. “Lo and behold,” he told New York Times. “It’s a perfect large nodosaur [a family of heavily-armored, sometimes spiny-tailed vegetarian dinosaurs]. This one was beautiful. I was in ecstasy as a tracker.”
But his finding was now in danger of going extinct: Goddard was about to rip the site up to make way for a $31 million building.
Aided by a number of volunteers, Stanford was able to dig up the slab before construction got underway, and, with researchers’ help, made a mold of the slab that became was the basis for their study. A replica of the mold was put on display in the lobby of the Goddard Space Flight Center Wednesday. And the $31 billion NASA building, creatively dubbed building 36, where NASA designs its satellites, was eventually built after the slab was removed.
And as it turned out, that slab revealed more than just prints — it also indicates activity on the site that took place over a relatively short period of about two weeks, when rodent-like mammals and big dinosaurs crossed paths. And it contains the largest footprint of a mammal from that time period. From the imprint, it appears that a five-toed animal about the size of a badger was also hanging around.
Nor was it the only lucky break that NASA got today by way of an amateur. On Wednesday, the agency also confirmed that a stargazer had finally spotted a NASA satellite that had been missing since 2005.