Editor’s note: Lee Cone is a member and former president of the Special Friends of the Aurora Fossil Museum. During his time with the FOSSIL Project, Lee was instrumental in coordinating the Belgrade Community Science project. FOSSIL team members interviewed him about his experiences with paleontology.
How and when did you first get interested in collecting fossils? How long have you been involved in paleontological research?
That is an interesting question, but I believe that certain people have a natural interest in things relating to the past and that quality comes out at an early age. I grew up in Augusta, Georgia and was fascinated by Native American artifacts from the local area. In the early 1960s, I collected with my parents, walked the shoreline of Clarks Hill Reservoir, looked in newly plowed fields, and collected the banks of Brier Creek at a Boy Scout campsite near Waynesboro, GA. I spent one summer in high school volunteering for the Augusta Museum on a professional archeological Native American mound site on the Savannah River and experienced collecting at a completely different level. That experience showed me that there is so much more to research than the collected item itself.
Fossils came later, after college, graduate school, and marriage, on a chance visit to Edisto State Park near Charleston in the late 70s. An exhibit, showing fantastic Pleistocene and Pliocene fossils collected off Edisto Beach, hooked me like nothing else. Forty years later I still have a kid’s fascination about fossils.
There is a natural by-product of collecting that passively morphs the mind of all collectors, professional or amateur. It is knowledge. One can not collect without gaining knowledge along the way. Professionals actively seek out that knowledge and look for answers to unasked questions, while amateurs ask questions relating to their finds seeking answers from known questions. There are some amateurs, though, that go beyond the obvious, and wonder why or how, and seek a greater connection to education, learning, and research. I don’t really consider myself a researcher, but intellectual questions related to observations that I see from specimens that I collect invite further study of the literature. Through my collecting experiences of Miocene shark teeth from the west coast, there have been observable differences between the east and west coast faunas. Numerous questions have invited some rudimentary research to try to answer some of those questions. I have been very fortunate to have had support for my comparative study from one of the UF graduate students, Victor Perez, who continues to encourage me to pursue answers to my questions.
Do you have a favorite collecting location?
Now, you know that you’re not supposed to ask an amateur THAT question, but seriously, I have really gotten hooked on the Cooper River and the massive amount of material that is continually being uncovered as the huge river meanders across the flood plain near Charleston, SC. Diving is a sport that I love and to combine black water diving with my passion for collecting is the best of both worlds. Of course, everything on the river bottom is a mixture of formations ranging from present to Oligocene, but probably the greatest contributory layers are the marine-based fauna from the Miocene-Pliocene period. Six-inch megs are fairly common but can lie next to a mammoth tooth from the Pleistocene. Every dive is an adrenaline rush, and the excitement of the possibilities never ends.
Do you have a favorite group of animals or do you have a favorite fossil?
I do love the marine mammals, and the Pliocene whale that I donated to the Mace Brown Museum is easily my favorite. The baleen whale, consisting of 25 associated vertebrae (lumbar, thoracic, and cervical), ribs, cranium and maybe 30% of the entire skull, consumed 8 years of my life piecing the thousands of fragments back together. We knew the specimen came out of the Yorktown Formation, and that knowledge gave Dr. Robert Boessenecker, a paleontologist at the Mace Brown Museum, the opportunity to engage in research on the specimen, as well as the assemblage of material that was associated with the site. The whale is currently on display at the museum and is viewed by so many more people than when it rested on my wife’s dining room table. I have to thank her for her patience with my OCD side.
Can you tell us a little about your experience working with professional scientists?
I was fortunate to have had a wonderful Major Professor at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography in the early 1970s, who served as a supporter and mentor. A comment he made, “Never stop asking questions about the established,” is one of those things I never forgot. After a 35 year career as an educator, I once again found myself working with professionals at the University of Florida, this time in paleontology. Opportunities afforded to me by myFOSSIL have opened my eyes once again to the excitement of knowledge-based research. My experience in the Nebraska Badlands with Bruce MacFadden was one of the most life-changing eye-openers for me. Bruce’s bold challenge with the FOSSIL Project, I believe, has been one of the most important projects in reformatting the value of amateurs in paleontology. We live in a terribly divisive time, both around the world and politically at home, and there has been divisiveness within the world of paleontology between some amateurs and professionals. Bridging that gap, demonstrating collaboration, and educating the amateur collector was one of the challenges that Dr. MacFadden bravely took on. We speak of the need to change the culture of the amateur collector through education of that collector. Nebraska was that point for me. It revealed cooperation. It revealed amateur value to research. It revealed the importance of site data. It is up to all amateurs that have been touched by myFOSSIL to continue to educate other amateurs now and in the future. You will face defiance and objections from some, but the legacy that myFOSSIL has initiated can only be sustained through education by those who know about fossil ethics sharing with those individuals who do not know. Lack of knowledge regarding fossil ethics comes from ignorance more than greed.
Can you describe the relationship among participants in the Belgrade events and how this partnership has developed?
It is fitting that the Belgrade Project occurred toward the end of the NSF Grant of the FOSSIL Project because it clearly demonstrated that “If you build it…..They will come” (Field of Dreams). Bruce and I collaborated on an idea that was designed to add data to a larger research project which studied mid-Miocene terrestrial mammal fauna. Sites in Panama, Nebraska, Florida, and eastern North Carolina are included. We offered an educational collecting opportunity to amateurs for two consecutive years (2018, 2019). To date, a total of 54 amateurs from the Special Friends of the Aurora Fossil Museum and the North Carolina Fossil Club have joined with 10-12 participating professionals from the University of Florida and the Smithsonian Institution to collect the Belgrade Formation from the Belgrade Mine. All specimens were donated either to UFL for processing or the Smithsonian, depending on the research at each repository. All I can say is that the model worked to perfection, with each participant (professional or amateur) gaining equally from the experience. The camaraderie between everyone was one of equal respect, friendship, and enjoyment in the shared experience.
To learn more, read these related newsletter articles from earlier issues:
Rare Extinct Land Mammal from Belgrade