Michael Godfrey beginning the process of quarrying down around the footprint bearing layer. Photo taken December 31, 2012. Photo: Stephen Godfrey

NASA is most often looking upward, toward far-off planets and stars, and the limits of the human imagination.

But their latest published discovery was right in the ground behind one of their buildings. The huge slab of sandstone the Goddard Space Flight Center contains about 70 tracks preserved from the feet of dinosaurs and early mammals, as they report in the journal Scientific Reports.

“The Patuxent ichnocoenosis represents near-optimal conditions for the preservation of small tracks,” they write. “It is ‘a window’ on the coastal plain paleoecology of the Maryland region, more nearly representing an optimally preserved ichnofacies fauna, and also far more informative than the impoverished body fossil record.”

The discovery was made in 2012 Ray Stanford, a dinosaur track expert whose wife Sheila is an employee at Goddard.

Ray Stanford dropped Sheila off at work one morning in 2012, but noticed a rock outcropping that intrigued him behind the building. He parked the car, and found a foot-wide dinosaur track on rock exposed from the outcropping. (Both Stanfords were authors on the paper).

That first track was eventually identified as a nodosaur, a huge scaled dinosaur from the late Cretaceous. Other scientists were brought in, including Stephen Godfrey of the Calvert Marine Museum, Martin G. Lockley of the Dinosaur Trackers Research Group of the University of Colorado Denver, and also Compton Tucker of NASA/Goddard.

What eventually emerged was the slab, 8 feet by 3 feet, which had 70 tracks from eight species, they report. Besides the nodosaur, the prints came from sauropods, theropods, and pterosaurs. Twenty-six of the prints came from small mammals the size of squirrels or prairie dogs.

The mammals are especially valuable – since the small creatures of the time period have mostly been represented in the fossil record by teeth alone. Their small bones were not as well preserved as the massive bones of the reptiles from the same era.

Some of the prints told their own short stories. For instance, a baby nodosaur print was alongside and within that of an adult, meaning they were likely traveling together. Another line of four parallel theropod prints indicates they may have been hunting or looking for food together.

Tucker, who is creating a display of a cast of the slab within Goddard’s Earth Science building, said the mid-Atlantic location must have always been popular with many species.

“People ask me, ‘Why were all these tracks in Maryland?’” he said. “I reply that Maryland has always been a desirable place to live.”

Lockley called the arrangement and context of the massive find “the Cretaceous equivalent of the Rosetta Stone.”