Just 11 days after the Curiosity rover touched down on the Red Planet, back on earth, tracker Ray Stanford stood on NASA Goddard soil announcing a more terrestrial breakthrough—dinosaur footprints.
That's footprints, plural.
Stanford Friday came on Goddard's Space Flight Center's campus and showed them what he believes is the track of a large armored dinosaur called a nodosaur. But he also identified several smaller footprints of a deadly beast—the three-toed flesh-eating theropod. Goddard reported on both announcements.
The discovery didn't end there, though. Stanford said in an interview with Patch Wednesday that he identified a likely iguanodon as well, a beaked dinosaur with thumb spikes, and he suspects the possibility of tracks for pterosaur, a flying reptile, in that spot.
"There could be anything there," he said.
NASA lies in an area where a giant tsunami swept inland over the area 34.5 million years ago and "washed millions of years of sediment away right down to where the dinosaurs walked," Stanton said.
Stanford said that when he was on site Friday identifying the nodosaur track, it was Goddard staff who picked up pieces of substrate with theropod tracks, thinking them curious, and brought them to him to identify.
Stanford regularly lunches with his wife, who works at Goddard, and several years ago he became interested in the area, according to CNN.
He had found material there he thought might indicate the Cretaceous period, between 145.5 and 65.5 million years ago, Goddard says.
On Wednesday, he said what he found six years ago was the track of a flesh-eating therapod. But what he didn't see at the time was the track of a nodosaur. It was within 40 feet of the theropod's, but it may have had some dirt and grass over it, he speculated.
It was in June, when Stanford returned to the site that he found what he believes to be the track of a nodosaur's right rear foot.
“This was a large, armored dinosaur,” Stanford said, according to Goddard's report. “Think of it as a four-footed tank."
On Wednesday, Stanford said he suspects the left back footprint is nearby under the soil.
Exploring the extraterrestrial, all the while, Goddard officials have been walking the same ground as the plant-eating nodosaur—and the deadly therapod, creatures that the University of California, Berkeley's paleontology museum says include "the largest terrestrial carnivores ever to have made the earth tremble."
The better-known Tyrannosaurus rex is among them, as well as the dilophosaurus of Jurassic Park fame, according to the UC Berkeley Museum of Paleontology.
Although footprints don't normally tell you a species, according to Stanford, he's certain the tracks he found weren't from a T. Rex., who is from the Jurassic time period not the Cretaceous.
The Tyrannosaurus rex gets the attention because of its name, which basically means king of the terrible beasts, according to Stanford. But there were plenty of deadly theropod, in Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.
Asked whether the ones that left prints on Goddard's campus were as deadly as other theropod, he answered, "Ask whatever their prey animals were. They'd say they were pretty terrible."
Though the nodosaur track was a rare find—it's also very interesting that theropod tracks were found at the site, according to Dave Bohaska, a Smithsonian Museum specialist with its Paleobiology Department.
Bohaska is familiar with Stanford's work and said one of his finds, a baby nodosaur rock impression, is in the Smithsonian exhibit near its Fossil Lab.
"NASA will proceed to verify the print and get technical support from experts, and make decisions as to next steps," said Alan Binstock, a cultural resources official at Goddard.
While NASA has the Curiosity rover up on Mars looking for signs of ancient life, "I showed them there's a trace of ancient life 110, 112 million years old right there on their campus yard,” Stanford said.