"FIND ME a shark's tooth," Peter Kranz told his daughter. While the paleontologist continued to tell us about the geology of the cliffs around us, his third-grader studied sand at Bayfront Park near Chesapeake, Md. She sifted through the fossilized shells and rocks to come up with a half-inch-long tiger shark's tooth.
The rest of us crowded around to see. We had followed Kranz on a dinosaur and fossil hunt, this one sponsored by the Chesapeake Children's Museum. Kranz is the director of the Dinosaur Fund, a group that aims to educate people about where and when they may come across dinosaur bones. Kranz leads these tours year-round. The beach is a good place for everyone to find a fossil, but he ventures north to Washington, Laurel and Greenbelt to show off where bigger dinosaur bones have been found. The hope and plan is that with more interested people knowing what they are looking for, more dinosaur bones and other interesting fossils will be found.
The beach, he said, is all Miocene epoch (24 million years ago) and rather late to be finding significant dinosaur bones -- though not impossible. As we left the parking lot, he pulled out two coffee-cup-size whale bones, saying that the cliffs hold more than just shark teeth and that every now and then a storm like Hurricane Isabel can make them give up their treasures.
So it was with great excitement that my 5- and 3-year-olds took their collecting bags -- one big grocery bag and one smaller sealable bag. My boys ran the quarter-mile from the parking lot to the beach, while the older participants -- two other boys who looked about 8 and their parents -- walked quickly, also eager to hit the sand.
My son, Evan, 3, soon discovered that the best part of digging for fossils is the digging. He happily tunneled through piles of sand, until he noticed that his brother, Scott, had made a serious collection. Not to be outdone, Evan ran along the water's edge and scooped up shells, sharks' teeth and sand -- a collection of quantity if not quality.
The rest of us sifted more cautiously. I briefly wished the instructions for the event had said to bring waterproof boots so we could go into the fossil-rich surf, but I contented myself with sorting through the thousands of pieces that made it to the dry sand.
We learned to pick up specimens with some care and then keep them flat in the palm of our hands -- so they aren't accidentally dropped or broken -- when asking Kranz for identification. And before long we each found fossilized sharks' teeth and fossilized stingray spines. The dinosaur dig is one of several programs that pith-helmeted Kranz leads. He says most events can be tailored to the age of the audience, from pre-K through adult. In the winter, he usually leads what the Chesapeake Children's Museum calls a Dinosaur Day -- an hour or so of discussing fossils, handing out dinosaur bones found in the area and talking about how paleontology is done.
When weather permits he leads dinosaur hunts, such as the one we went on in October, as well as plain old fossil hunts and geological tours. During spring break and summer, the Dinosaur Fund and area children's museums sponsor several Dinosaur Camps, where attendees spend days visiting museums and hunting in geological areas that could potentially contain dinosaur fossils. This summer, some of Kranz's campers found the remains of a 58 million-year-old prehistoric reptile in a stream bed near Fort Washington.
Kranz has put together a traveling exhibit called "Before the Bone Wars, Dinosaurs of the Capital Area," now on display at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Northwest Washington. And he sets up "Dinosaur Projects," in which fossil-rich sand and clay is dumped on the playgrounds of schools that request it, and children are invited to sift and analyze what they've found. He also self-published a book in 2003 called "Dinosaurs of the District of Columbia."
"Paleontology isn't like they show in the movies," he said. "It's not 'Jurassic Park.' We don't X-ray the ground." The trick, he explained, is to know the geology and therefore where dinosaur bones are most likely to be, then start digging there. To that end, our trip to the beach was doomed. The sand was too young to hold dinosaur bones, but the dunes still turned out to be a great way of catching glimpses of Washington, B.C.
DINOSAUR AND FOSSIL HUNTS -- Led by Peter Kranz. 202-547-3326 or 301-203-0367. www.dinosaurfund.org. firstname.lastname@example.org. Dinosaur and fossil hunts will take place rain or shine Sept. 4, 12 and Oct. 2. The hunts will last from 10 a.m. until late afternoon, but participants are welcome to leave whenever they need to. Meet at 10 a.m. in the parking lot for the Oxon Hill Farm in Oxon Hill (off of Interstate 495 and Indian Head Highway). Wear appropriate clothing and bring a lunch, a plastic shopping bag for large fossils and sealable bags for small fossils. Suggested donation to the Dinosaur Fund of $35 per person and $50 per family.
Sept. 18 at 10 -- Kranz will lead a Fossil Field Trip leaving from Watkins Park Nature Center, 301 Watkins Park Dr., Upper Marlboro. 301-249-6202. Donation may be requested. Call the nature center for more details.
Sept. 25 at noon -- Kranz will talk about dinosaurs at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, 901 G St. NW. 202-727-1111. The talk will be in the main lobby and will be in conjunction with his traveling exhibit of dinosaur fossils from Washington.