Tall Tails of Capitol Hill

Lamppost sign by sculptor by Charles Bergen

I was chatting with my friend Liz the other day, when I noticed she was wearing a pair of T-Rex earrings. For all I knew she might just be a “Jurassic World” fan, but as it turns out Liz is a legit dinosaur aficionado. We swapped stories. She’s excited that the Mace Brown Museum in her hometown of Charleston just acquired the cast of a 41-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton (named Bucky). I told her about a semester spent volunteering in a fossil lab at the University of California Museum of Paleontology, where I had the task of meticulously pasting together the bones of a hadrosaur (a large, duck-billed dinosaur). To this day the memory of holding a piece of an enormous creature that roamed the earth 150 million years ago is still an experience beyond compare.

Having established our dinosaur bona fides, you can imagine Liz’s surprise when I mentioned that DC not only has an official dinosaur but that it was discovered just a few blocks away. Many Capitol Hill residents are probably unaware that this neighborhood was once the site of a mysterious and controversial dinosaur discovery. Even its name is a point of legal and scientific contention. I’m talking about “Capitalsaurus.”

The story goes like this. In January 1898 construction workers were trying to connect a sewer not far from the Capitol building when they discovered the remnants of a predatory dinosaur (I know there’s a political joke in there somewhere). These fossils – an unidentifiable bone fragment and a vertebra from where the tail meets the hips – were given to the Smithsonian to study. For the better part of the next century the fossils were assigned enough identities to qualify for relocation to the Spy Museum. Yale paleontologist Richard Swann Lull identified the new dinosaur as Creosaurus potens, only to have his colleague Charles Gilmore overturn this finding and reassign the species to Dryptosaurus, only in turn to have local paleontologist Peter Kranz refute both findings in 1990 and informally name the dinosaur Capitalsaurus.  

Now the controversy. Although the host of the fossils was never scientifically identified, and the name Capitalsaurus is only a nickname, DC was so excited by the prospect of having its own dinosaur that we did the thing we do best: we passed a law! Exactly 100 years after its discovery, Capitalsaurus became DC’s formal dinosaur through the introduction of the “Official Dinosaur Designation Act of 1998.” Two years later the intersection where the fossils were discovered was renamed Capitalsaurus Court, and January 28 was proclaimed Capitalsaurus Day.

The problem is, do we even know that there ever was a Capitalsaurus? The fossils that were found in 1898 are a holotype, the only physical proof that this dinosaur ever existed. Several articles have been written about Capitalsaurus over the years, and they always end with this unresolved question. So I went to Dr. Matthew Carrano, curator of dinosauria at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, to see if perhaps there was an update. As it turns out, the identity of Capitalsaurus is more uncertain than it was before; even the notion that it was a therapod (a predatory dinosaur) is unclear.  

The sticking point is that the features of the vertebra are not distinctive enough to distinguish it from many other dinosaurs. According to Carrano, “We’d never really be able to tell if we found other bones of ‘Capitalsaurus’ because they’re just not distinctive. And as we only have that one vertebra, we wouldn’t be able to tell whether an isolated thigh bone (for example) came from the same species.”

So the identity of Capitalsaurus unfortunately remains a mystery. But if this seems like a loss for DC’s claim to prehistoric fame, rest assured there are many hidden and not-so-hidden amber gems around Capitol Hill for the dinosaur enthusiast. First and most distinguished, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has a world-class collection of dinosaur fossils. While the great Fossil Hall is currently undergoing a massive renovation (mark your calendars for the grand opening in 2019), you can still check out “The Last American Dinosaurs.” This fascinating exhibit features many of the great dinosaurs that roamed North America during the late Cretaceous, meaning these particular creatures were living just on the cusp of the mass extinction. The exhibit also has a lab open to public viewing, where visitors can observe museum staff and volunteers as they prepare and conserve fossils. As you exit the exhibit don’t miss another smaller exhibit, “Dinosaurs in Our Backyard,” which showcases the dinosaurs that have been found right here in the Washington metropolitan area. Many of these fossils were discovered by amateur fossil collectors. In case you’re wondering, the fossils of our friend the Capitalsaurus are still in the Smithsonian collection, but according to records they have not yet been on display.

After you’ve left the museum and wish you could just jump in a time machine, there’s a way! Southwest from the Capitol building lies the US Botanic Garden’s conservatory, which has a special side room called the “Garden Primeval.” It feels like stepping into a Jurassic landscape: a lush environment where ferns, cycads, ginkgoes, and conifers dominated the earth long before there were flowers. If you look carefully you’ll find both a dinosaur egg and a small dinosaur hidden in the foliage. Finally, it’s worth making a pilgrimage to Capitalsaurus Court, located at the intersection of F and First Streets SE, on the northwestern corner of Garfield Park. Attached to a lamppost you’ll see sculptor Charles Bergen’s fantastic street sign depicting the drama of a “Capitalsaurus Chasing a Falcarius” (Falcarius was a plant-eating dinosaur). While we haven’t found any new Capitalsaurus fossils, they could easily be out there, still waiting to be uncovered. Anywhere you go in DC you just might be standing on the shoulders of giants.

Myself in front of one of the famous Cabazon dinosaurs in California (the dinosaur depicted is not “Capitalsaurus”).

Jonathan Lewis is a Capitol Hill writer, poet, and history enthusiast. Hear him read at Poet’s Corner at the 2016 Literary Hill BookFest on May 1.