The little girl down my block was clear when I walked by. She loved dinosaurs and had the dino-shirt, dino-model in hand, and the smiling eyes and mouth to prove it.
A quick chat with the girl’s mother confirmed the obvious. “She’s crazy about them,” mom said.
She then added that they were looking for ways to encourage her interest during the pandemic.
As a dinosaur-enthusiast from way back, I had an idea of what was running through the girl’s mind. That’s because these bigger-than-life once-real creatures are an enchanting potion of science, imagination, and mystery.
They’re also cool.
And as a former New Jersey State Museum administrator whose job involved dealing with paleontologists, I also had some real deal information about New Jersey’s major role in dino-history, how women were involved, and places to go to connect with the big brutes.
So if you’re looking to bone up on dinosaurs in New Jersey, let’s go.
“The birthplace of American paleontology was in New Jersey,” writes William Gallagher in his important Rutgers University-published book “When Dinosaurs Roamed New Jersey.”
A former assistant natural history curator at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, author of numerous studies, and current assistant professor at Rider University, Gallagher connects that statement to the discovery of the world’s first substantial dinosaur skeleton in 1858 in Haddonfield, New Jersey. That’s a small town 13 miles outside Philadelphia (45 miles from Princeton).
At the time scientists on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean had already amassed a number of large reptile bones that clued them in that giant lizards had once romanced the world.
And while the term dinosaur — terrible lizard — had been coined to classify them, in order to group them, no skeleton existed to figure out what they actually looked like.
To fill the gap scientists used their imaginations and understanding of anatomy.
That was until Philadelphia-based lawyer and geologist William Parker Foulke pieced together the strange bones found by farmers and reported to Foulke while he was on a summer break outside the big city.
Since the New Jersey State Museum had yet to be founded, Foulke contacted noted paleontologist Joseph Leidy at Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Science.
Leidy knew what it was, and he and Foulke soon presented the first dinosaur skeleton finding report ever to the academy later that year.
Leidy also christened the critter with name Hadrosaurus foulkii, Latin for Foulke’s bulky lizard.
As Gallagher notes, with “the most complete dinosaur skeleton known at this time from anywhere in the world,” scientists then were able to see for the first time what a dinosaur looked like.
The effort was aided by British artist Waterhouse Hawkins, who had helped a prominent British paleontologist create paintings and sculptures of what he thought dinosaurs looked like.
Hawkins happened to be in Philadelphia in 1858 and convinced Leidy and the academy to study the Hadrosaurus.
After making castings and creating missing pieces, including the skull, Hawkins turned the New Jersey find into the world’s first mounted dinosaur skeleton.
Hawkins also made casts that became the first dinosaur exhibitions at Princeton University and the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. as well as the first European exhibition at Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh.
No wonder the Academy of Natural Sciences has called the New Jersey find “The dinosaur that changed the world.”
A few years later, in 1866, another significant New Jersey dinosaur discovery occurred. Its finder was another important 19th century paleontologist and Leidy protégé, Edward Drinker Cope.
After moving from his hometown of Philadelphia to Haddonfield in order to take advantage of bones being found by regional farmers and clay diggers, Cope hit pay dirt in nearby Gloucester County when he put together the major skeletal portions of America’s first carnivorous dinosaur.
The creature is the Dryptosaurus aquilunguis, a fierce cousin of the monstrous Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Dinosaur bones, prehistoric marine fossils, mastodons and mammoths, and dinosaur foot tracks in stone continued to be found and eventually directed to the New Jersey State Museum, founded in 1885, making it the center for New Jersey dinosaur fossils and research.
That includes an important late-20th century State Museum-led field study at the Ellisdale site on the boundary of Burlington and Monmouth counties.
Currently the focus of a major study involving the NJSM and the Smithsonian Institute’s United States National Museum of Natural History, Ellisdale, now part of the Monmouth County Parks System, is a story with two beginnings.
The first starts 75 million years ago and involves dinosaurs during the cretaceous period — the final portion of “the age of the dinosaurs.”
The other start involves the humans finding dinosaurs remains in the 1980s and the woman who would eventually oversee the excavation.
Robert Denton and Robert O’Neill are the two who unearthed the discovery in a seemingly routine spot.
“When I worked at Johnson & Johnson, I was living in Allentown,” says Denton during a telephone interview. “I thought there were fossils sites in New Jersey and started going around.”
A geologist, Denton is also an avocational paleontologist who learned the trade through Harvard University-led excavations and other hands-on research.
When he noticed a type of terrain by a wooded stream bed off Province Line Road near the former Princeton nursery, he got intrigued and began considering other such sites that yielded a mixture of prehistoric sea and land animal fossil specimens.
He says he also recalled the following advice from a mentor: “If you look for fossils at places where people had found some, you’ll find the same. But if you find a place that no one had gone and found something, it will make you famous.”
After a few visits and finding only the remains of prehistoric fish, Denton says he says he began to have “an intuitive feeling” that piqued his curiosity.
Soon he and O’Neill began exploring the grounds but “didn’t find any fossils, at first. But it looked different than any other places.”
That was, in part, because the prehistoric wood at the site had not been transformed into coal like at other fossil locations.
While initial visits yielded little, Denton says he couldn’t get the ravine out of his mind and says it “was yelling at me” to revisit.
“We went back in the August of 1980 and started walking up the ravine by a stream,” he says. “And right there was a fossil turtle shell. I walked a few more feet, and we found a neck vertebra of a Hadrosaurus. Then there was another.”
The two took the specimens to the New Jersey State Museum’s chief curator of natural science, David Parris, who immediately grasped the significance of the site and told Denton “to keep your eye on the spot.”
Denton says “soon after every major rain storm we’d find another bone. Then there was the great event that happened in March, 1984. We had a classic New Jersey Mid-Atlantic Nor’easter and 11 inches of rain. The storm had cut into what we found was the fossil-bearing unit, and there were pebbles and bones everywhere. They just kept washing out. In a few weeks the collection went from several hundred to several thousand (specimens). And we realized that we needed to investigate the site.”
The museum then submitted and won a grant from the National Geographical Society in 1986 to conduct a study of the Ellisdale site (Full disclosure, I helped with the grant).
The following was history.
“I was the main person who was paid — an excavator supported by the NGS grant. I was in charge of digging in fossils. (Others) were digging but as volunteers,” says Barbara Grandstaff, a paleontologist and now the head of the gross anatomy course at the University Of Pennsylvania School of Veterinarian Medicine.
She describes her duties as follows: “I identified and sorted through (specimens) and cataloged them. I was involved with curating the fossils when we brought them back to the museum.
“Digging up the fossils is the fun part. You get to get be outdoors and digging in the creek, which is exciting. But then you have to catalog the records and document them to make sure they’re available to the world in the future.”
She says the site provide a unique glimpse of the world during New Jersey’s Cretaceous era. “The site is incredibly interesting. Not only do we have dinosaurs, we also have marine fauna (animal life occurring during a particular era).”
With little fanfare, Grandstaff says, “And we have the first mammals (found) in the Eastern United States. We have a lot of the little things that lived with the dinosaur. And we can put an ecosystem together.”
She says several factors make the site unlike others. “There are layers of mud and sand. Even though it’s 75 million years old it hasn’t been compressed in rocks. That is unusual. And to find an estuary is incredible and isn’t common.”
Additionally, she says, the site “is a different environment than we see west of the Mississippi (where a good deal of dinosaur collecting continues). There was a sea way that separated the two land masses. The animals we’re seeing here are different than others west of the sea way. We’re seeing things that are more like Europe.”
She says that she did a lot of discovering in the lab when she went through soil and looked at objects through a microscope.
While there were a lot of fish bones, she says that while “sorting through the dirt to find what goodies were in there” she “found a lot of the little lizard jaws and salamander bones. I also found baby dinosaur teeth. That’s pretty cool, baby Hadrosaurus.”
She says the salt marsh estuary “was productive enough to be a nursery ground for Hadrosaurus babies and also for sharks.”
But for Grandstaff, the most exciting thing was finding the remains of a mammal. “I didn’t find it in the field but in the lab. I cried ‘hurray’ because I found a mammal’s tooth. It was the first time anyone found a mammal’s tooth from the cretaceous period. It was the tooth of a tiny animal that was related to possums.”
Grandstaff’s big news about a tiny discovery is part of southern New Jersey’s important role in dinosaur history — especially the discovery that put dinosaurs in museums and connected New Jersey with paleontology history.
Like the small girl at the start of the story, Grandstaff says her love of dinosaurs and fossils goes back to her childhood. “When I was six my mom and dad gave me ‘The Golden Book of Dinosaurs’ for my birthday. They said it was because I liked fossils, and I didn’t realize it.”
An Ithaca, New York, native, Grandstaff and her family moved to Holland, Pennsylvania, when her Atlantic Richfield employee father was transferred to the Philadelphia region.
She says her early collections were made when her family traveled to upstate New York to visit her Methodist minister grandfather whose parsonage was on grounds with fossils.
“I fell in love with them,” she says. “From then on, from age six to 12, I collected fossils, horn corals, much older than dinosaurs, 300 million years old. Solitary corals that look like ice cream cones. They’re really neat to find. My parents never minded carrying the corals and rocks I was collecting.”
After studying earth science in high school, she went to Millersville State College, where she majored in earth science and geology with a minor in biology.
“I had already decided that I wanted to be a paleontologist. When I applied to grad school I was looking for one where I could study paleontology and went to Princeton (University).”
Grandstaff was a one of the first group of females to attend the university and was able to take advantage of its paleontology program and collection that existed until the 1980s. She earned a master’s degree in geological and geophysical sciences in 1973.
Questioned about challenges she faced while studying a field dominated by men, Grandstaff says that one professor, Glenn Jepsen was “a bit of a misogynist.”
On the other hand, she says most others were supportive. “They liked to have someone excited by paleontology. That’s what matters most. Jepsen was unusual. (His attitude) is far from the truth from most paleontologists. They’re really good people.”
One in particular she mentions is a fellow classmate mentioned earlier mentioned, the NJSM’s David Parris.
“Dave and (a fellow student) stood up for me and got me out into the field. It would have happened if Dave hadn’t pushed.”
She also credits Parris for her involvement in the Ellisdale project.
After she had volunteered at the state museum, she says she ran into Parris at a conference where Ellisdale fossils were on display.
“He asked if I would like to help out with the project,” says the married mother of a daughter. “I was teaching part time (at Temple University), so I had some time.”
Although Grandstaff worked on other field digs in South Dakota and North Carolina, she says the Ellisdale excavation “gave me a chance to do field work in paleontology, actually collect the fossils. Doing all of that nitty-gritty work gave me a better view. And that’s the kind of thing that I like — to see the whole fauna and not just one thing. I got to be in at the ground floor — at the start and finding how exciting the work was.”
“I never expected to be part of history,” she says. “I’ve been very lucky at being at the right place at the right time.”
For area residents who want to help their dino-crazed children dig into their interest or just want to go dino-hunting themselves during the pandemic, here are some tips — both outside and in.
First, why not go to where it all began? Head to Haddonfield, New Jersey, and check out the life-sized memorial to the town’s most famous resident, who also happens to be New Jersey’s official state dinosaur, the Hadrosaurus — aka Haddy.
Created by sculptor and former Rutgers University Fine Arts Department chair John Giannotti, the giant figure is situated in the heart of town and close to the exact place where the actual dinosaur was found.
Combine with the trip with a downtown snack near the statue or have a picnic at the site. This is a low-key and low-cost adventure to where it all started and puts the Garden State’s dinosaur history in context.
Second, make a visit to the Academy of Natural Science in Philadelphia where the first Hadrosaur has been greeting visitors — including a younger version of me — for more than 150 years.
The museum and its impressive Dinosaur Hall are currently on open on a pandemic-limited schedule, Fridays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets range from $16 to $22. www.ansp.org.
Third, wait for the reopening of the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton and make a visit to its natural history hall. There kids and adults can immerse themselves in New Jersey’s dinosaur history through footprints and mounted cast skeletons, including “Haddy” as well as a stirring homage to New Jersey’s own Dryptosaurus.
But make that a double.
Inspired by famed American artist Charles R. Knight’s popular painting of two fighting dinos, the NJSM’s display features a pair of hungry skeletons in a perpetual battle that stirs the imagination.
Additionally, look for the hands-on Innovation Lab, which lets visitors get a feel for fossil hunting and watch museum volunteers and staff sort and catalog materials that make their way from Ellisdale or Southern New Jersey.
And finally, why not start exploring the world right under your feet?
As curator Parris said in a note, “While Benjamin Franklin and other Philadelphians were founding American sciences (including paleontology), the people of southern New Jersey were suppliers of vast numbers of actual specimens. In a very real sense, the farmers and miners of southern New Jersey provided much of the support that launched American science.”
And with a new crop of New Jersey girls and boys interested in dinosaurs, new discoveries and revelations may just be waiting.
Take Grandstaff’s advice, “Science is always built on the people that came before you and continues with those who come after. It grows. We’re handing it off to young folks.”
In other words, it’s time to get real crazy for dinosaurs.