Magazine article The New Yorker

Happy Hunting

Magazine article The New Yorker

Happy Hunting

Article excerpt

It's no big deal for a paleontologist to be off by a million years. Yet, one Saturday morning a few weeks ago, Carl Mehling arrived at Big Brook, a little stream in New Jersey, at 10:30 A.M. on the dot, exactly as planned. Mehling is the collections manager of the American Museum of Natural History's amphibian, reptile, and bird fossils unit (a.k.a. paleo herps and chirps), which includes the world's largest collection of dinosaur fossils. He is so devoted to the pursuit of the prehistoric that, on a fossil expedition a few winters ago, he liberated a fish jaw encased in frozen soil by peeing on it.

A few times a year, Mehling invites fossil hobbyists to slosh around with him in the shallow waters of Monmouth County, looking for Late Cretaceous shark teeth, bivalves, duck-billed dinosaur bones, petrified dung, and other sixty-nine-million- to seventy-two-million-year-old remnants that make you feel very young. On this occasion, the party of approximately twenty included a herpetologist, an ornithologist, a high-risk obstetrician, a video editor, and six children. It was unlikely that anyone would cart home something as monumental as the Hadrosaurus (the state dinosaur of New Jersey), which was dug up in nearby Haddonfield in 1858. Those bones constituted the first nearly complete dinosaur skeleton ever discovered. Still, a visitor to Big Brook can usually unearth something sweet to put in his Ziploc sandwich bag or Tupperware container. "What makes Big Brook great is that there is an abundant and variable fossil yield," Mehling said. "And lots of parking."

By 10:33, Mehling, positioned on the riverbank, could dawdle no longer. "We are standing in a swath of sediment, some of which is seventy-two million years old," he said, addressing the group. Actually, he was crouching. He jabbed a garden trowel into the gravelly ground and scooped some gunk onto a metal mesh radiator cover that he'd salvaged from the museum's trash. He sifted the melange and inspected the remains. "This is the most stressful part of the day," he said. Among the lima-bean- and corn-niblet-shaped detritus, Mehling caught sight of a dark-green speck that turned out to be the tooth of an antediluvian goblin shark. On a second look, he spotted two more teeth and a shard from a fish jaw. "Phew," he said. "I'm vindicated. It's usually not this easy." Still, the average shark goes through ten to twenty thousand teeth in a lifetime, so Big Brook is practically paved with dental debris. …

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