In the footsteps of dinosaurs

The first recorded evidence of dinosaurs in the USA was found in a field alongside the banks of the Connecticut River nearly 200 years ago. On a drive through New England in the XC90, we go in search of 190 million year-old footprints

Words: Ian Dickson, Photos: Andrew Shaylor

On the road to discovery: the Volvo XC90 in Boston

People have settled in the valley of the Connecticut River for centuries, drawn by its fertile soil and rich natural resources. Starting at the Canadian border and flowing south for 410 miles, the river is the longest in New England, framed on both sides by some of the region’s most spectacular scenery.

But long before the Native American and European settlers walked on this land, something much larger roamed here. In the Early Jurassic period, some 190 million years ago, this central valley was a very different place to today. Back then it was a hot subtropical swamp. Prime dinosaur conditions. Or, to give it one of the period’s other names, the Age of the Reptiles. .

An important discovery
It was in 1822 that Rev William Buckland, a theologian, geologist and palaeontologist from Axminster in Devon, wrote the first full account of the discovery of a fossil dinosaur, which he found in a cave in North Yorkshire. It helped ignite an interest in palaeontology and geology around the world. Fourteen years after Buckland’s discovery, on the other side of the Atlantic, an American geologist made what was to be another important find.

It was in 1836 that Edward Hitchcock, a professor at Amherst College in central Massachusetts, along with a group of fellow enthusiasts, stumbled upon a series of three-toed footprints in a sandstone outcrop just a few yards from the banks of the Connecticut.

It’s to the site of these remarkable prehistoric remnants that we’re heading, nearly two centuries after Hitchcock made his discovery. Parking our XC90 in a layby off US-5, a mile or two outside the city limits of the small industrial town of Holyoke, we wander down a short, leafy path to the Dinosaur Footprints Reservation, which is open seasonally every Spring until late Autumn.

When you first encounter them, you may initially wonder what all the fuss is about. Time and the elements have conspired to wear the footprints down, so they can be difficult to spot at first. However, on closer inspection you can pick out hundreds of small tracks and footprints heading away from the river, frozen in time in the soft sandstone rock. Once you spot them, the scene comes alive.

They are thought to have been made by bird-like carnivorous theropods that measured up to seven metres in length. The largest of the footprints, around 50cm long, are believed to have been made by a Dilophosaurus, a relative of the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex.

However, more significant than the discovery of the footprints themselves was Hitchcock’s subsequent thesis that these dinosaurs lived and travelled in herds. The nature of the footprints’ groupings suggested that the extended families of dinosaurs were all moving and hunting together. In other words, the animals were not the solitary scavengers that they were once thought to be but instead highly social. At the time, the theory was met with ridicule from fellow academics and palaeontologists, but Hitchcock’s hypothesis took root and would prove to be an invaluable insight into the lives of dinosaurs.

The end of an era
Today, the scenery along this stretch of the Connecticut River has changed little from Hitchcock’s time. The wide, lazy river doesn’t so much flow as dawdle at this point in its leisurely journey south, where it eventually discharges into Long Island Sound. The steep bank on the opposite side to where the footprints are located is still heavily wooded. It’s a gentle, soothing scene. But around 66 million years ago, a cataclysmic event caused the end of the Age of the Reptiles.

There are even clues to this ecological disaster set into the sandstone rock at Holyoke, giving an idea of the sudden impact with which the dinosaurs were wiped out. Embedded in the rock you can see the ripples of an ancient pond, solidified in an instant following a catastrophic volcanic eruption. Look out for prints of primitive fish, plants and stromatolites – mounds of sedimentary rock made up of fossilised algae and trapped sediment – too.

It’s a profound experience standing here, surrounded by the footsteps of dinosaurs, as the mighty Connecticut River flows past. It’s only the rumble of cars passing on the highway behind us and the clang of a distant train bell that helps transport us 190 million years, forward to the present day.