Geeking Out on Dinosaurs

Paleontologist Tom Holtz, right, tells a bookstore audience that there is lot to learn about big, scary creatures that lived millions of years ago.
Paleontologist Tom Holtz, right, tells a bookstore audience that there is lot to learn about big, scary creatures that lived millions of years ago. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Thomas Holtz can't remember a time when he wasn't obsessed with dinosaurs.

When he was very young, he told his parents he knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up: a Tyrannosaurus rex.

It didn't quite work out that way, but Holtz thinks he figured out the next best thing. He's a paleontologist at the University of Maryland and spends all day studying, writing and talking about his favorite prehistoric creatures. He even has a nickname: King of the Dino Geeks.

"They're big and scary and weird, like dragons or monsters, but these are big, scary, weird things that you can find out more about all the time," Holtz says while sitting in his office. As you might expect, it's decorated with dino-gear -- dinosaur bookends and figurines and fossils and posters. Even a pop-up calendar.

Another Day, Another Discovery

Holtz says he really became interested in dinosaurs once he realized that "there are still new discoveries to be made. It wasn't just going to be memorizing a bunch of facts."

There seems to be an announcement of a new species of dinosaur about every other week. That might seem odd, considering that they all became extinct about 65 1/2 million years ago.

But Holtz says that's what makes his job so exciting. This year alone, more than 30 new types of dinosaurs have been given names and scientific classifications.

"It's a big world. There are rocky places that haven't been explored scientifically yet," Holtz explains, adding that as researchers explore more remote places, they're finding evidence of previously unknown dinosaurs.

Following in Their Footsteps

Only a dozen miles from Holtz's office, the remains of a giant, plant-eating dinosaur were found more than 100 years ago. Scientists named that species Astrodon, and it became the official state dinosaur of Maryland.

Most states, including Virginia, don't have a state dinosaur. The District does, however. Can you guess why it's called Capitalsaurus? If you live near First and F streets Southeast, you're walking on its turf!

It's funny to think that dinosaurs used to walk around where kids now play soccer and go to school. There is less evidence of the dinosaurs that lived in this area than there is in other places because our climate has lots of moisture, which makes fossilization difficult.

Holtz says that "Maryland's dinosaur history is one of the best-kept secrets in paleontology." The Maryland Science Center in Baltimore is a great place to learn about that history, he says.


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