James Rada, Jr.
Two-hundred-and-twenty-million years ago, give or take a few million years, Frederick County (and, in fact, all of central Maryland) was part of a vast lake and mud flat that stretched from North Carolina to Connecticut. The Catoctin Mountains were not the mere hills they are today, but an enormous range towering as high as the Himalayas. The lake, known as the Lockatong, sat in the middle of Pangaea, an immense, C-shaped supercontinent.
Because of Pangaea’s massive size, most of the inland areas were very dry. Lake Lockatong was one of the exceptions, though it could be more mud than water at times. Pangaea eventually broke apart, and the pieces would spread to become the continents we know today.
It was a time of drastic climate change at the dawning of the Age of Dinosaurs. The lake began to dry and, as it did, some of its fish and other creatures found themselves trapped in small pools of water. When those pools evaporated, the critters died in the mud.
Small animals moved across the mud flats seeking water. Behind them, their prints remained, baked into permanence by the heat of the sun.
Years passed. Eons elapsed. The land changed. It cooled. Different types of vegetation arose. The mountains shrank due to erosion. Man appeared.
John and Linda Ballenger own a 145-acre farm in Rocky Ridge that is now yielding its prehistoric secrets to researchers, simply because Linda thought to ask.
In 1994, John Edwards, with the Maryland Geological Survey, came to her door wanting to take some samples of the ground on the Ballenger Farm. “I jokingly said, ‘If you find any dinosaur tracks, let me know,’” Linda recalls.
She went out to run errands, but when she returned, she found a note reading, in part, “These marks on the rock surface may be nothing at all, but it is possible that they may be the tracks of some small lizard-size or mouse-size animal. Possibly a small dinosaur?”
Linda walked out into the fields where she had seen Edwards go and searched for the pieces of white paper he had left behind to mark what he thought might be tracks. When she found them, she wasn’t sure what she was looking at, either.
And she wouldn’t be sure for another 10 years. That’s when she read a newspaper article in The Emmitsburg Dispatch about a quarry at the north end of Emmitsburg where dinosaur fossils had been found. She contacted the article’s author, Richard D.L. Fulton, and told him that her farm might also have dinosaur tracks.
Fulton, who happens to be a published lay-professional paleontologist, visited the farm and confirmed Linda’s find. He then asked permission to begin studying the farm for other evidence of its prehistoric past. Since 2004, his search has yielded thousands of reptile tracks, skin impressions and bones, millipede and insect tracts, plant fossils, and fossil freshwater shrimp and fish.
“Most Eastern Triassic Age formations are void of fossils because the surface was too dry to hold impressions,” Fulton says.
This is because during the Triassic Age (248 to 208 million years ago), Pangaea was so expansive—imagine all of the world’s land pushed together—that water picked up from the oceans never made it into the center of the continent as rain.
“This particular section of Triassic has a wet period that we’re looking at,” says Fulton. “It was practically dead-center in the middle of the supercontinent, and it allows us to see life as it struggled in some serious climactic extremes.”
Paul Olsen of Columbia University has suggested that the Ballengers’ farm is probably the lowest known area of Lake Lockatong.