Fossil Hunters Leave No Rock Unturned

By , Special to 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.

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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.

Take the kids

Children, like first-time adult fossil hunters, typically approach the endeavor with some wariness. When a neighbor invited Maureen Healey and her twin, Elizabeth, to join her on a PRI field trip, the girls accepted. But they had their doubts.

"I thought it wasn't going to be much fun and we wouldn't find much stuff," says Maureen.

At first, that seemed to be the case. "We weren't having much luck, and I had found a rock that was just lying there, and I was holding it. Then I dropped it by accident," Maureen recalls, "and a piece broke off. And it had sea shells inside."

Maureen had discovered one of the secrets of a successful hunt: The best finds sometimes lurk inside the rock. At one point, she cracked open a piece of shale and discovered a shell that was "very thin, like paper."

It was the inner lining of a brachiopod, a creature that resembles a clam and survives today only in the deep waters of New Zealand fjords, off the coast of Scotland and in Puget Sound, Washington.

Before the day was through, Maureen had also learned another lesson. "I lost a really good trilobite because it was so breakable," she says, referring to the friability of shale. To avoid further losses, she placed her finds carefully in plastic bags, wrapping them when she could.

Ideally, a collection like hers would be labeled with information about where it was found and in what kind of rock (see story, right). Such details reveal the fossil's full story and explain the enduring lure of fossil hunting.

"What could be more interesting than the history of life?" Allmon says. "We are all interested in where we came from. This is 'Roots' writ large."

Want to Go On a Fossil Hunt?

You don't need much to go fossil-hunting. At most, an old kitchen knife, a screwdriver, a hammer, a bag, and lots of tissue will do. Fossils can be quite fragile, so make sure you pack your interesting specimens carefully, perhaps even laying them out in a flat box. The only other tools are a pen and paper. These are extremely important, because fossils only reveal their full story if a paleontologist knows where they were found. Otherwise, even the most well-preserved specimen is virtually useless from a scientist's point of view.

As for choosing sites, "road cuts are some of the best places to pick fossils," says Warren Allmon, director of the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI). So are construction sites and quarries. But it is crucial to find out who the site belongs to and, public or private, ask permission and act responsibly.

Information is easy to find. Guide books are plenteous and include books geared to amateurs and children. Amateur groups have sprung up around the country. Many are listed on the Internet at: web2.thesphere.com/SAS/ SciGrps/PaleontologyGrps/PaleontologyAmateur.html And many research centers offer trips and information. Among these, a good source is the PRI site: www.englib.cornell.edu/pri/pri1.html

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