Which Dinosaurs Lived In Pittsburgh?
Pittsburgh resident Emily Eckel sat in traffic along Forbes Avenue, admiring the scarf around the neck of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s dinosaur statue. She wondered if Diplodocus Carnegii, or “Dippy” for short, could have lived here millions of years ago.
“I kind of fantasized about it coming to life and roaming around Pittsburgh,” Eckel said. “And then that led to a more serious question, which was: What dinosaurs actually did live in the Pittsburgh area?”
Pittsburgh’s old bedrock
Paleontologists aren't 100% positive which dinosaurs lived in western Pennsylvania because the old bedrock in western Pennsylvania dates from before the Age of Dinosaurs. The Appalachian Mountains and their foothills have eroded over millions of years, according to University of Pittsburgh geologist Charlie Jones.
“For the entire time of the Age of Dinosaurs, the mountains have been eroding and all the sediments that accumulated next to the mountains have also been eroding away,” Jones said. “So Pittsburgh has lost about 8,000 feet worth of sediments since compression stopped, since the mountains stopped growing."
In 2004, University of Pittsburgh students discovered a rare amphibian fossil skull from a specimen that lived here 300 million years ago. That’s more than 50 million years before the dinosaurs.
Jones said dinosaur skeletons are found in other parts of the eastern U.S. due to rift basins, or areas where the continents cracked when they pulled apart. Fossils in these low areas were buried under layers of sediment and preserved.
The Carnegie Museum’s associate curator of vertebrate paleontology Matt Lamanna says remains found in these rift basins give clues as to which species might have roamed prehistoric Pittsburgh.
Dinosaurs in nearby states
A giant inland sea called the Western Interior Seaway divided North America into two islands — the western "Laramidia" and the eastern "Appalachia" — near the end of the Age of Dinosaurs. The water extended from present day Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico. The separation divided the dinosaurs, resulting in different species on both sides of the water.
Fossils from dinosaurs who lived in the eastern Appalachia land mass have been found in New Jersey, North Carolina and Alabama. While Pittsburgh lacks the right rocks to preserve dinosaur bones, paleontologists think many of the creatures found in the eastern U.S. could have lived in our area.
The 1858 Haddonfield discovery suggests the duck-billed plant-eating Hadrosaurus could have lived in present-day Pittsburgh. Another New Jersey dinosaur is the Dryptosaurus, a distant relative of the Tyrannosaurus rex. The two-legged dinosaur was likely a top predator in the region, according to Lamanna.
Other species such as ostrich dinosaurs, Dilophosaurus, small plant-eating dinosaurs, and relatives of Coelophysis and Velociraptors likely roamed the region.
Eastern North America also has a rich record of prehistoric marine reptiles, like the giant, carnivorous crocodile Deinosuchus. “These animals would have been living in fear probably of this giant crocodile that was kind of lying in wait for them in waterways, waiting to turn them into a snack,” Lamanna said.
The western land mass, or Laramidia, housed many of the most famous dinosaurs in present-day states like Montana, Wyoming and Utah.
“Dinosaurs like T. rex, Anzu, Ankylosaurus, Triceratops, Pachycephalosaurus; there's little to no evidence for these groups here in eastern North America at the end of the Age of Dinosaurs,” Lamanna said. “It's not necessarily that they didn't live here, but so far their fossils haven't been found.”
The Western Interior Seaway drained near the end of the Age of Dinosaurs. In the years shortly before the catastrophic meteor, the two different fauna could mix, which is how a Triceratops-like tooth ended up in Mississippi.
What about Dippy?
Lamanna says the museum’s fossils of Dippy come from Wyoming, but its relatives have been found in western Europe, specifically Portugal. Europe and North America were much closer together millions of years ago, he said.
“It’s quite reasonable to expect that Diplodocus or very similar dinosaurs lived in the intervening space between Western North America and Western Europe, a.k.a. Western Pennsylvania,” Lamanna said.
Roughly 150 million years ago, Dippy likely roamed around the Pittsburgh region. Fossils of his colorful scarf collection, however, have never been found.