Fossil Hunters Leave No Rock Unturned

By Lee Lawrence, | The Christian Science Monitor, September 15, 1998 | Go to article overview

Fossil Hunters Leave No Rock Unturned


Lee Lawrence,, The Christian Science Monitor


Portland Point Quarry is one of the few destinations in New York's Finger Lakes region where you won't need your watercolors. People do not come here to admire the blue waters of a lake, a dramatic gorge, or splendid autumn foliage. No, Portland Point offers nothing more than an embankment of loose shale with as much allure as an elephant's back.

Yet for many, this gray landscape is an ideal hunting ground.

"In the next hour you will find about six different species of fossils," announces Warren Allmon, director of the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) in nearby Ithaca.

Like many in his field, Dr. Allmon is catering to the public's newfound interest in fossil hunting. "It started even before what we call that movie," says museum scientist Sally Shelton, referring to "Jurassic Park." "But after that, it has certainly skyrocketed," adds Ms. Shelton, a manager for the collections program at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

PRI field trips are increasingly popular (they run from May to September, attracting more than 250 participants), and enrollments in the Denver Museum of Natural History Paleontology Certificate program have also steadily risen since the program began in 1990. Fossil hunting has also gone commercial, particularly in the wake of the highly publicized 1997 sale of a T-Rex skeleton to Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, for close to $8.4 million.

Educating the public

In response, PRI and other institutions around the country have stepped up efforts to educate the public - to ensure that amateur paleontologists go about collecting fossils in a manner that enhances research.

"What's fascinating about it is the age of these things," says Robert Ploss, a retired science teacher who goes on frequent field trips through PRI.

Armed with a rock hammer, old kitchen knives, a pry bar, and a stash of paper lunch bags, Mr. Ploss has explored various parts of New York State and traveled as far as the Chesapeake Bay, where he found fossil shark teeth and ancient whale bones. He often takes a grandson along because, he says, "It gets children interested in science, gets them to start understanding their home, the earth." Ploss donates any interesting finds to PRI.

"It's not like stamp collecting," Shelton stresses. "People who hunt for fossils want to be part of the science, part of the team."

The first step is to go out hunting. At Portland Point, for example, one gray chip looks pretty much like another, until fossil hunters notice ripples too regular to have occurred naturally. This is when they realize what they are holding is the mid-section of a trilobite, an extinct marine animal that thrived during the Devonian epoch some 380 million years ago.

Thanks to events 10 to 15 million years ago, such fossils are easy to find in the Finger Lakes area.

"Glaciers are just like undergraduates," Allmon explains. "They follow the path of least resistance." So time after time, they crept down river beds and "bulldozed out all the rock" and with it all traces of later inhabitants including dinosaurs.

On the upside, however, they exposed rock that is "particularly fossiliferous," says Bryan Isacks, who chairs the Geology Department at Cornell University in Ithaca. …

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