In the bed of the Paluxy River, Jason Sanchez appears to be playing the old board game Twister.
As he stretches his legs between two dinosaur tracks, Sanchez contorts his body, nearly falling down in the process.
“That’s a trackway,” said Sanchez, the lead ranger at Dinosaur Valley State Park. “If you have more than three tracks, you’ve got yourself a trackway. It shows you how they were moving through this area.”
For more than a century, the park near Glen Rose has been known for having some of the best-preserved dinosaur footprints in the world.
While it may be taken for granted by locals who make weekend day trips to the 1,587-acre park, Dinosaur Valley is getting some new recognition this week in the nation’s capital.
Sanchez, park interpreter Kathy Lenz and office manager Violet Wright made the 22-hour drive to Washington, D.C., for the National Park Service’s National Fossil Day celebration. They’ll be making a presentation in the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum today about the park’s legendary tracks.
For Lenz, the news that she would get to spread the word about Dinosaur Valley has led to a few sleepless nights.
“I’ve been walking around in a daze,” she said last week.
At the Smithsonian, Lenz will show off a 13-foot leg bone from a sauropod — a massive long-necked, four-legged dinosaur that was a plant eater — and teach kids how to dig for dinosaur tracks.
Last year, Dinosaur Valley had about 150,000 visitors, but Lenz thinks the Smithsonian visit is a chance to reach a new audience.
“I would like to pull in more from everywhere else around the United States,” Lenz said. “I want to let them know what we have here.”
Dinosaur Valley’s role in understanding more about the behavior of dinosaurs has been crucial, said Louis Jacobs, a professor of paleontology at Southern Methodist University. Jacobs helped work on the effort to uncover the state dinosaur of Texas, Paluxysaurus jonesi, which is on display at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History and was found on a Hood County ranch.
“Those tracks at the park were the first place in the world where they found footprints of those big, long-necked sauropods,” Jacobs said. “There are paleontologists from other countries who have come here and we’ve taken them down to Glen Rose to see those tracks. It’s like a pilgrimage to see those first tracks.”
While Dinosaur Valley has been a state park since 1972, Somervell County captured its first share of fame when a section of the riverbed was excavated by fossil collector Roland T. Bird in 1938 and was taken to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
“The whole way dinosaurs moved is extremely different from the way we used to think it would be,” Jacobs said. “If you look at those tracks and start looking at the anatomy of those animals, it’s very different from the old coldblooded reptiles we used to talk about. Now, when you look at dinosaurs, they seem to be colorful and dynamic animals.”
James Farlow, a paleontologist with Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne and author of The Complete Dinosaur, conducted research at the park in 2008 and 2009 to map the tracks in the Paluxy River. He plans to publish a book about his findings.
“I would rate those sites within the boundaries of the park right up there with the best dinosaur localities in the world,” Farlow said. “I’ve never seen any sauropod footprints any better than those. Every paper that is ever published about sauropods refers to those dinosaur footprints in Glen Rose.”
The prevalence of footprints belonging to three-toed theropods, which were meat-eaters, have led some to speculate that they were pursuing the larger plant-eating sauropod for prey.
While he isn’t ready to say that tracks prove that one dinosaur was attacking the other, Farlow said the footprints suggest that a theropod might have been following the sauropod.
“The three-toed tracks of the meat-eating dinosaurs are quite beautiful in their preservation,” Farlow said. “They’re more abundant. They’re all over the place. You get almost perfect replicas of the foot.”
The tracks date to 105-115 million years ago, during the early Cretaceous Period, when North Texas was covered by a shallow sea. The mud hardened and calcium carbonate helped preserve the tracks.
The ongoing drought has uncovered more of the footprints, which usually would be covered by water. On a stroll through the river last week, hundreds of tracks were visible.
At some point, the river will rise again, covering up some of the footprints, only to reveal new ones after the flood ends.
“I would say the ratio between losing tracks and gaining tracks is much better on the gaining side,” Lenz said. “When we get a big flood, it swirls and cuts off of the main channel and creates a deep eddy. When that water recedes, the new tracks emerge.”
For Sanchez, who started working at the park part-time as a summer job at age 15, the trip is a chance to represent his hometown. He’s the face of the park for a lot of locals, since he’s been there for 26 years.
“Everybody in town always calls ol’ Sanchez if they need something,” he said.
While Lenz is immersed with the dinosaurs, Sanchez is involved in the day-to-day park operations. But he has spent plenty of time with the dinosaur tracks, leading tours and uncovering new ones.
“I think the best part is when we see these people come from halfway around the world and they’re so excited,” Sanchez said. “And I have had a chance to bounce my theories off of some of the world-class experts that have come here and they haven’t called me an idiot. They’ve actually listened to what I have to say.”
DINOSAUR VALLEY FAST FACTS
• A 1908 flood washed out all the culverts and bridges in the Paluxy River.
• A year later, 9-year-old George Adams discovered large three-toed tracks — theropod tracks in the Paluxy.
• A fossil collector for the American Museum of Natural History in New York named Roland T. Bird came to Texas in 1938 to see the site. While exploring in the river, he found what appeared to be sauropod tracks, along with the theropod tracks. Over the next two years, he uncovered a large section of the river and carved out tracks. His findings brought worldwide fame to Glen Rose.
• The park opened in 1972 with a mission to preserve the track sites.
• The National Park Service has designated this park as a National Natural Landmark because of the outstanding display of dinosaur tracks.
• There are also models of an Apatosaurus (70 feet) and Tyrannosaurus rex (45 feet) near the park headquarters. The fiberglass models were first displayed at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. The Atlantic Richfield Co. donated them to the park in 1970.
• Tracks from the park are also on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and at the Texas Memorial Museum in Austin.
• Five main track site areas have been mapped within Dinosaur Valley State Park. Each of these areas has named individual track sites.
• Two types of tracks are visible in the park
Sauropod tracks, large elephantlike tracks believed to have been made by Sauroposeidon proteles.
Theropod tracks, smaller and often with a distinct three-toed pattern, believed to have been made by Acrocanthosaurus. Some of the theropod tracks are classified as “elongated” because the dinosaur was walking on its metatarsal bones. Many of these tracks do not show the typical three-toe pattern because the tracks were made in runny, deep mud, and the toe impressions were buried.
Sources: Dinosaur Valley State Park and “A Brief History of Dinosaur Tracks in Glen Rose, Texas”