Dinosaur Travels: Dinosaur State Park Rocky Hill, Connecticut

My friend Laura on child raising:  “Emphasize experiences.”

Taking on this advice, we are channeling family resources to forge happy moments with our young children while nourishing their interests. We want to give our family the gifts of travel, learning and time together.

Life is short.  Time is fleeting.  Our moment to be alive and to be a family is now.  The world is not static.  We are in constant evolution.  So we have learned from dinosaurs.

Journey Through Time

I remember about dinosaurs in Rocky Hill from the time I lived in Connecticut but never got to visit the Dinosaur State Park when I was a resident of the Nutmeg State.  My focus was different then.  On a trip for a family event that took me back to New England, this time with two dinosaur-enthusiastic children in tow, we visited Connecticut and journeyed back in time.

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Earth is old:  approximately 4.5 billion years old.

The entrance to Dinosaur State Park invites visitors to ponder on deep time with the 92 foot long granite Earth History time line, called A Walk Through Geologic Time.  Each foot of the walk represents 50 million years.

We walked into the Precambrian (origin of the Earth to the appearance of abundant marine fossils), Paleozoic (time of ancient life forms), Mesozoic (time of dinosaur domination and divided into Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods) and Cenozoic (time of mammalian domination of the earth).

We went on and followed the painted tracks to the Geodesic Dome that houses the real tracks of dinosaurs who walked on Earth 200 million years ago.

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 Discovery on West Street

The Dinosaur State Park is on 400 West Street in Rocky Hill, Connecticut.

Rocky Hill is about 20 minutes south of Hartford. West Street is the same street where the Rocky Hill VA and the Connecticut State Laboratory are located.

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It was a sunny day, the 23rd of August, 1966 when backhoe operator Edward McCarthy was excavating the West Street lot for a new state department building.  He unearthed a slab of gray sandstone and found strange three-toed footprints.

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More of these tracks were unearthed.  Within a few weeks, plans changed:  officials decided to preserve the site as a state park.  Two thousand fossil tracks were carefully excavated.  Five hundred of the tracks are now enclosed in the park’s Geodesic Dome with the remaining 1,500 buried for preservation.

 Eubrontes

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Paleoichnology is the study of trace fossils, including fossil footprints.  Fossil bones teach us about dinosaurs’ anatomy; the fossil tracks give us ideas about their behavior.  Paleoichnology tries to answer questions like, what was the dinosaur’s direction and speed of travel?  Were they solitary or in a group?  How many were in a group? Did they care for their young?

Lights show the direction of the track makers at the Dinosaur State Park:

Dinosaur tracks and dinosaurs are named separately.  The tracks in Dinosaur State Park are Eubrontes.  Eubrontes means true thunder and the term was coined in 1836 by Edward Hitchcock, geologist and president of Amherst College.  Hitchcock initially thought that Eubrontes tracks in the Connecticut Valley were made by gigantic ancient birds.  It seems like prescience since fossil records have taught us that birds are descendants of feathered dinosaurs.  The Eubrontes tracks have been studied by subsequent scientists and have been attributed to dinosaurs, most likely a large heavy carnivore called Dilophosaurus.

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The name Dilophosaurus means two-crested reptile.  The name refers to the paired thin bony crests running the length of its skull. It is about twenty feet in length and thought to be the largest theropod during the early Jurassic.  The front part of its upper jaw is partly separated from the rest of the upper jaw; the rear jaws are powerfully built suggestive that it is an effective predator.  It is a biped with long hind legs, indicative that it can run fast.

There are no dinosaur bones found within the vicinity of the tracks in Connecticut.  Dilophosaurus bones, however, were found in Northern Arizona in rocks of the same age as the rocks in the Connecticut Valley.  The feet and stride of Dilophosaurus are the best match for the Eubrontes track.

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When I was a child, I thought of sedimentary rocks not as interesting as igneous or metamorphic rocks; obviously, I was not a dinosaur aficionado like my kids are now.  Or geology trained like my father-in-law.  There’s always room to learn, even as a grown up.

Sedimentary rocks are rocks formed by deposition then cementation of mineral or organic particles at the Earth’s surface and within bodies of water.  In sedimentary rocks, we find clues about past life on Earth.

Where the Dinosaur State Park is now located, in the Mesozoic World of the dinosaurs, there must have been a lake.  After a rainstorm, the lake expanded.  When the sun shined and the lake contracted, mud-flats became exposed, creating a scenario for dinosaur to make foot imprints preserved over millions of years and that we are now studiously gazing at.

In 2006, more tracks were excavated across West Street at the Veterans Home.  They were at a deeper rock layer than the ones in the Park, suggestive that they’re thousands of years older.  The newer found tracks were not well-lithified and had a sugary texture.

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Making a Eubrontes Cast

IMG_4916 (1).jpgA souvenir of our trip to Connecticut is a Plaster-of-Paris cast of Eubrontes, Connecticut’s State Fossil.  Our children learned that casts of fossils can be made for later study.  Making the cast takes approximately 45 minutes.

To make the Eubrontes cast, you will need cooking oil, rags, 10 lbs of plaster of Paris and a 5 gallon plastic bucket.  Instructions are posted at the casting site.  James from the Dinosaur State Park assisted our family in making the cast and piqued our interest in dinosaurs as we worked on our cast.

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While waiting for the cast to dry up, we walked in the Arboretum, which has over 200 species of conifers, ginkgoes, katsuras, magnolias and other plant specimens that appeared at the time of dinosaurs.

IMG_5100.jpgThe Park also has an activity area where children can color dinosaur pages, play with dinosaur models and puppets.  There are other fossils that park visitors can touch and read about.

Paleontology is intimately related to Geology and the Dinosaur State Park has exhibits that explain the geology of the Connecticut Valley.

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If you visit and are pressed for time and want to make a cast, we suggest to do the cast first and while it sets, go to the Geodesic Dome and enjoy a walk to the Arboretum.

We truly enjoyed the visit to Dinosaur State Park.  Our two children had so much fun and my husband and I learned a lot.  We brought home a cast of a footprint of a dinosaur that lived millions of years ago (Mesozoic, Jurassic) with the other side of the cast bearing the handprints of our children at this tender age (Cenozoic, Holocene).

-Kathleen


Thanks for reading our blog.

If you plan to visit, Dinosaur State Park is located at 400 West St. Rocky Hill, Connecticut 06067. The park’s website lists park hours, directions and events:  www.dinosaurstatepark.org

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