Magazine article The New Yorker

New Jerseysaurus

Magazine article The New Yorker

New Jerseysaurus

Article excerpt

If you had happened to visit Monmouth County, New Jersey, sixty-six million years ago--admittedly a big "if "--you would have found the place to be very different from what it is today. First off, it didn't really exist. Like most of the rest of New Jersey, Monmouth County was at that point--toward the end of the Cretaceous period--underwater. The whole of what is now North America was much closer to what is now Europe, and the continent was tilted so that the east coast of what would eventually become the United States, rather than running more or less north-south, ran northeast-southwest. It was very warm, and the seas above the proto-Garden State were probably a tropical blue. They swarmed with mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, and ammonites.

The other day, Neil Landman, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History, and Matthew Garb, a lecturer in geology at Brooklyn College, drove out to Monmouth County to try to piece together what happened at the close of the Cretaceous. Accompanying them were two graduate students, Remy Rovelli, from Queens, and Zbigniew Remin, who was visiting from Poland. They pulled in near a deserted baseball field and struck out through the underbrush. (Landman would prefer not to publicize the exact location of the ball field.) Soon, they reached a creek. Owing to all the recent rain, the water was running high.

"Geologists, in general, like drought," Landman announced, before wading in. He was carrying a large pickaxe.

The Cretaceous period came to an end--suddenly and catastrophically--sixty-five and a half million years ago, when an asteroid travelling at a speed of almost fifty thousand miles an hour hit the earth. The asteroid left behind many telltale traces, the most famous of which is the so-called iridium layer--a very thin band of sediment with anomalously high concentrations of the element. In the millennia since the impact, the iridium layer has in most parts of the world either eroded away or been buried deep underground, so finding a place where the layer is exposed and intact is something of a paleontological coup. Several years ago, Landman and some colleagues discovered a stretch of it along the creek bed. Perhaps even more significantly, they found fossils directly under and also right above the layer.

The iridium layer was first identified at a site just outside the picturesque Umbrian town of Gubbio. Landman pointed to the creek bed, which was overhung with brambles and assorted bits of plastic debris. …

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