News & Politics

Happy Capitalsaurus Day!

The mayor gave DC’s official dinosaur its own day of recognition in 2001. There’s only one problem: It might not have ever existed.

Corner of First and F streets, Southeast, where the dinosaur bone was found in 1898. Photograph courtesy of Peter Kranz.

The strange saga of Capitalsaurus—the District of Columbia’s official dinosaur—begins on a cold Capitol Hill January in 1898. There, at the corner of First and F streets, Southeast, construction workers were digging more than forty feet below the surface to lay sewer pipe when they encountered a layer of clay embedded with hard ironstone lumps. A bit more excavation uncovered a six-inch piece of preserved bone—a fossil. The project’s contractor quickly delivered it to Smithsonian scientists, where it has baffled paleontologists for more than a century.

Only a few things were certain: The bone was a vertebra, a part of the tail. It seemed to come from the early Cretaceous period, making it some 110 million years old. And the creature that it belonged to appeared to be a theropod, a group of bipedal dinosaurs that included some of the most ferocious carnivores to have ever roamed the earth, including the infamous Tyrannosaurus rex.

But apparently even fossilized remains in Capitol Hill can’t escape politics.

In 1911, Yale paleontologist Richard Swann Lull named the bone’s owner Creosaurus potens, estimating the beast to be more than 30 feet long and weighing two and a half tons. But that was invalidated a decade later by Smithsonian paleontologist Charles Gilmore, who declared that the bone resembled those from a species called Dryptosaurus, which had been found in New Jersey decades earlier.

So it remained for decades, until local paleontologist Peter Kranz began studying the controversial fossil in the late 1980s. After comparing it to other Dryptosaurus specimens, he decided they couldn’t be a match, and in a 1990 Washingtonian article proposed that it was an entirely new species. He called it “Capitalsaurus.”

Paleontologists swiftly rejected Kranz’s argument and the scientific papers that followed, and the National Museum of Natural History’s dinosaur catalog still lists the bone under its 1911 name.

“Unfortunately this specimen was used to try and name a new genus, ‘Capitalsaurus,’ in honor of the nation’s capital,” the Smithsonian website says. “This is not scientifically justified, and the name ‘Capitalsaurus’ has no validity.”

Fortunately, Kranz had a bit of experience in getting people to listen to him about dinosaurs. He’d lobbied the Maryland General Assembly for years to name Astrodon johnstoni, a massive long-necked herbivore, that state’s official dinosaur. He decided to take Capitalsaurus, still just an informal name, to a place with less rigorous paleontologic standards: the DC Council.

Working with students from two local elementary schools, he presented his findings to the council. It was there that Capitol Hill’s own (maybe) dinosaur benefited from the once-thought-extinct act of political compromise, and the Official Dinosaur Designation Act of 1998 was enacted.

Since then, Capitalsaurus has gotten its own official song (“Them Dino Bones”), its own block (a street sign at First and F, Southeast, declares it “Capitalsaurus Court”), and its own day of recognition—January 28, 2001, the anniversary of the day the bone was first delivered to the Smithsonian.

While dinosaur bones in DC seems like a unlikely occurrence compared to places like Utah’s badlands or Africa’s fossil parks, there actually may be just as many remains here as other places; they’re just harder to get to.

“We have rocks of the right kind that we know have fossils in them up and down the East Coast, but in most cases those are not easy to get to,” says Matthew Carrano, the Smithsonian Natural History Museum’s curator of dinosauria.

Carrano says our region has more vegetation, urbanization, and privately owned land than the western parts of North America where fossils are typically found. “That means a lot of our ground is already covered, compared to the badlands where ground is all you’re seeing. It doesn’t mean we don’t have as much fossil material.”

Researchers have found fossils from a wide range of years and species in the region, from Virginia’s dilophosaurus bones (the “spitter” from Jurassic Park, only in real life it didn’t spit or have the menacing frill—sorry to burst your bubble), to armored nodasaurs in College Park.

And Carrano says there are surely more left to be uncovered: “The total number of species we’ve found we know is too small for any one environment, so there are others waiting out there to be found. We just have to get lucky.”

But with new construction projects seemingly digging up every other corner of the District, are we at risk of destroying potentially substantial fossil finds? Carrano says awareness is the most important tool.

“As people become more interested and aware, they’ll be on the lookout,” he says. “It’s not very difficult to rescue fossils from a construction site. So hopefully when people add a wing to their house, if they find something they give us a call.”

And despite Capitalsaurus’s rejection in the scientific community, what’s important to Peter Kranz is that awareness and interest that the creature has generated over the years.

“To say we have a dinosaur here in Washington, it’s a piece of city pride and educational inspiration,” Kranz says today. “Local kids ask me all the time: ‘Do we have a T-Rex here? And the answer is basically yes.”

Kranz is now president of the nonprofit Dinosaur Fund, which raises money for dinosaur research, and program manager for Prince George’s County’s Dinosaur Park, where the public can dig for their own fossils. And he doesn’t discount the notion that more of Capitalsaurus can still be found.

“There’s way more to be found than has been found,” he says.

Staff Writer

Michael J. Gaynor has written about fake Navy SEALs, a town without cell phones, his Russian spy landlord, and many more weird and fascinating stories for the Washingtonian. He lives in DC, where his landlord is no longer a Russian spy.