Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat was clearly delighted to come up with the title for the second episode in the upcoming series, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. But in the next best thing, and proving that real life can be almost as weird as fantasy, an amateur paleontologist has found dinosaur footprints at a NASA space base.
The cretaceous tracks, spotted at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where high-tech space missions are planned, were laid down between 110 and 112 million years ago by a species of plant-eating dinosaur called a nodosaur.
What’s more, experts believes there are smaller tracks overlapping the first set, suggesting that a baby nodosaur might have been passing through with its mother.
A print left by the larger beast, a heavily armoured creature, was spotted by Ray Stanford who had been surveying the Goddard campus looking for tracks. He revealed his find to NASA managers at the base on August 17. Ray also detected several smaller footprints made by three-toed, flesh-eating therapods on Goddard land.
Expert Rob Weems, of the US Geological Survey, visited to examine the nodosaur’s 30cm (12in) wide fossilised footprint in a sedimentary rock plate and identified the second nodosaur track, telling him that at least one younger dino was also ambling along.
Weems said: “It looks to be a manus (front foot) print of a much smaller dinosaur than the first one, but it looks to be the same type. If the one that came through was a female, it may have had one or more young ones following along.”
Ray Stanford describes his discovery at Goddard
It is thought that the smaller track shows signs of pushing up the still-wet mud that the adult dinosaur’s footprint had hollowed out.
Ray said: “This was a large, armoured dinosaur. Think of it as a four-footed tank. It was quite heavy, there’s a quite a ridge or push-up here. Subsequently the sand was bound together by iron-oxide or hematite, so it gave us a nice preservation, almost like concrete.”
He added: “Space scientists may walk along here, and they’re walking exactly where this big, bungling heavy armored dinosaur walked, maybe 110 to 112-million years ago.”