My four-year-old is obsessed with dinosaurs. He draws pictures of them, reads books about them, plays with dinosaur toys and pretends he’s alongside them when we’re walking in the woods together. I’d love nothing more than to take him somewhere and show him some real evidence of dinosaurs – footprints or fossils. In parts of the American West there are lots of options to view fossils dug from local dirt, but in Maine?
Whether or not there are dinosaur fossils around depends upon whether there are layers of rock that formed when dinosaurs were alive. Dinosaurs lived for a long time – for about 180 million years, between 245 and 65 million years ago – but the history of the planet is billions of years older. In the scheme of things, the 180-million-year period for dinosaur rocks to form is pretty short, and it turns out that those layers simply don’t exist in Maine.
The geologic history of Maine began more than 450 million years ago during the Ordovician Period, when the landmasses of what is now North America and Africa began banging together, pushing each other up over the course of millions of years to form the Appalachian Mountains. The Appalachians were once as tall as the Rockies or the Alps. Since their apex about 360 million years ago the Appalachians have been eroding away rather than building, meaning that there isn’t much new rock for fossils to get stuck in – including from the dinosaur years – since then. Plus, the glaciers that covered Maine off and on between 2.5 million and 12,000 years ago scoured away much of what could have been found.
So, no, there aren’t dinosaur fossils in Maine. Sorry, son.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any fossils at all. The rocks that thrust upward to create the Appalachian Mountains came from below the sea, which has had life for billions of years. If you know where to look, some of the fossilized marine life can still be found trapped in the rocks in Maine.
One of the most famous spots is Sugarloaf Mountain – not the ski slopes but a singular peak near Shin Pond and Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. If you scoot off the trail most of the way up the steep trail you may find Neuman’s locality, an exposed formation containing thousands of fossilized brachiopods (similar to modern clams) and several trilobite species. It’s perhaps not as impressive as, say, a giant fossilized T-Rex skull, but standing on a mountain and running your fingers over the remnants of creatures that lived hundreds of years ago beneath the ocean is an experience to remember.
Similar fossils may be found elsewhere in Maine’s mountains. I was visiting a swimming hole along a stream near the other Sugarloaf Mountain this summer, the one in Carrabassett Valley, and spied several small rocks containing brachiopod fossils similar to those in the Neuman’s locality. An internet search turns up a few dozen other generalized locations to find fossils in Maine. Most of them turn up brachiopods, gastropods, and other small sea life from the Devonian Period (419 to 358.9 millions years ago), but others contain traces of sea life, including mammal bones, from about 12,000 years ago in the late Pleistocene, when glaciers had just receded from the state.
Of course, the best place to see Maine’s fossils is probably in museums. The Maine Geological Survey website lists the Maine State Museum, Bowdoin and Colby Colleges, the L.C. Bates Museum, and the Northern Maine Museum of Science in Presque Isle as places to see fossils without having to get your fingernails dirty.
Nick Lund of Cumberland is outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon. He has written about nature for the National Audubon Society, Down East, National Parks Magazine, The Washington Post, and others. He can be found online at TheBirdist.com and on Twitter @TheBirdist.