THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

On the trail of a predator, 200 million years later

By David Filipov
Globe Staff / March 14, 2010

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ROCKY HILL — The fearsome predators approached the water, their massive bodies in a crouch, long tails and short forelimbs extended, sharp, unusually thick claws at the ready. They had come here to drink, but they were always on the hunt, and they moved quickly, despite their size — 20 feet long, 8 feet high — darting their crested heads around, alert eyes searching for possible prey.

It was the early Jurassic Period, some 200 million years before this place would become known as the Connecticut River Valley. These hunters were carnivorous dinosaurs, possibly dilophosaurs. They were the largest predators of their time, and this was their home.

Today, you can look right at the ground they walked on and see something they left behind — something that makes Dinosaur State Park such a rare treat for anyone who has a thing for the giant reptiles.

At its heart is a pavilion constructed over the actual tracks left by the errant dinosaurs, hundreds of them going in haphazard directions on what had to have been the sandy shore of a lake. Lots of museums have more impressive collections of dinosaur fossils, but few places are constructed around such a large set of actual dinosaur tracks, many millennia and several geological miracles after they were left, covered, and compressed into hard rock.

“You can in effect walk into the early Jurassic Period,’’ said Margaret Enkler, environmental education coordinator at the park. “You see the exact spot where dinosaurs walked 200 million years ago. We brought the museum to the footprints, instead of bringing the footprints to a museum.’’

For the dino-lover, this place bridges the gap between our fascination with the animals that ruled this planet for 160 million years and our captivation by creatures that seem too terrible, too large, too imposing to have existed outside of fairy tales. As you circle the walkway that wraps around the tracks, you can look down on one side to the concrete evidence that the dinosaurs were here, and on the other side read the scientific background of the discovery and how to interpret it.

The displays on the wall tell about the accidental discovery of the tracks in 1966 by a bulldozer operator. You learn about how the tracks were preserved, and by extension, about the geography of the valley as it changed over time. The valley was created 200 million years ago by the breakup of the supercontinent Pangea and a monsoon environment that created numerous lakes, Enkler said.

“It was that environment, plus the right kind of mud, plus large animals, all that sort of worked together to preserve the footprints,’’ she said.

You learn a lot about the tracks — scientists have charted them to follow the movements of various animals. Several informative interactive displays allow viewers to figure out which kinds of animals left which kinds of footprints. You get basic facts about the periods of the Mesozoic era — Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous — along with examples of the dinosaurs of those periods, and how the world looked to them.

Many of these are silhouettes, pictures, written text on posters, and videos — and like the museum as a whole, decidedly analog.

As cool as it is, Dinosaur State Park is not the place to go for real-as-life, computer-graphic-generated interactive dino-whizbang that will knock your socks off and send your kids screaming for the exits. Even the cheesiest of amusement park-style animatronics are absent here.

A theater plays short films that explain the lives of dinosaurs in terms grade-schoolers might appreciate, but we are talking clay-stop, 2-D animation here. An activity room offers dinosaur models and puppets, dinosaur coloring sheets, embossers that make dinosaur bookmarks, and boxes with real fossils, all of which will occupy inquisitive kids. A collection of live animals includes such exotic reptiles as bearded dragons and hissing cockroaches, and indoor and outdoor scavenger hunts provide livelier educational opportunities.

Around the building there is a collection of more than 250 plant species similar to those that grew in the age of the dinosaurs, and the museum provides a map that visitors can use to find various plants. A stone walkway timeline leading to the domed museum shows the evolution of earth’s inhabitants from the planet’s creation to the present. An outdoor exhibit — open May through October — teaches such tricks of the paleontologist’s trade as how to make a cast of tracks, and how to mine for fossils. And if all of that does not fill your day, you can take a walk on some 60 miles of hiking trails on the property.

The scariest thing you see is a large diorama featuring life-size models of a few early Jurassic dinosaurs, including the dilophosaurus, by far the largest.

A soundtrack plays noises presumably made by the other inhabitants of the swampy habitat: crickets, pterosaurs, smaller dinosaurs, and crocodiles — and then, the sniffing and snorting, thumping footsteps, and eventual roar of the big guy.

Actually, when dilophosaurus roars, it is pretty scary.

Enkler makes it clear that no one knows for sure how any of the animals, including dilophosaurs, sounded.

“It’s for fun,’’ she said.

For that matter, no one can say for sure that the tracks belonged to dilophosaurs. Scientists do not name fossil tracks after the dinosaurs to which they may have belonged. The tracks discovered in the Connecticut River Valley are called Eubrontes, and their size — 10 to 16 inches long, 10 to 12 inches wide, with three toes, suggests that they belonged to an animal that fits the description of dilophosaurus. Although no dilophosaurus remains have been discovered in the valley, the fossils of this type of dinosaur that have been found at other sites match the age, size, and shape of Eubrontes tracks.

Finally, there is the identity of dilophosaurus and its epoch. As dinosaur ages go, the Jurassic Period gets no respect — at least not in popular culture. The blockbuster “Jurassic Park’’ movie series actually stars a lineup of predators — Utah raptors, spinosaurus, and tyrannosaurus rex — that lived millions of years after the Jurassic ended. Dilophosaurus, the one Jurassic-era carnivore featured in the first (and best) of the movies, is completely mischaracterized as a frill-necked little freak that flings poisonous saliva at its prey — nothing at all like the swift-moving giant that could have left behind Eubrontes tracks in Rocky Hill. Just about the only thing the movie gets right, other than the fact that dilophosaurus is a sharp-clawed, sharp-toothed meat eater, is the pair of crests on the animal’s head (dilophosaurus means “double-crested lizard.’’)

Parents with small children — the kind who think the movie “Jurassic Park’’ was cool, and the BBC documentary “Walking With Dinosaurs’’ was cooler — may have to work to interest them in the museum’s displays. But you make them eat fruit and vegetables, right? Think of Dinosaur State Park as the tossed salad of your kids’ dinosaur diet.

This Mesozoic roughage went down just fine for Connecticut native Ann Sittauer, who brought her son Conor, 11, her daughter Patricia, 7, and Sandi and Jevi Muska, her 11-year-old nieces. The children screamed with delight as they ran past the life-size dinosaur models, with horror when the big reptile “roared,’’ and dug into the activities with gusto.

“ ‘Jurassic Park’ was a good movie,’’ Conor said. “But this was more educational.’’

David Filipov can be reached at dfilipov@globe.com.

If You Go

Dinosaur State Park

400 West St.

Rocky Hill, Conn.

860-529-8423

www.ct.gov/dep/dinosaurstatepark

Tuesday-Sunday, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Trails close at 4. Ages 13 and over $10, 6-12 $4; under 5 free