Amateur Spotlight: Samuel J. Ciurca, Jr.

by Shari Ellis

Susan Butts and Sam Ciurca. Photo credit Kimberly Lau
Susan Butts and Sam Ciurca. Photo credit Kimberly Lau

This issue we feature Samuel J. Ciurca, who received the 2016 Harrell L. Strimple Award from the Paleontological Society. University of Cincinnati scientists Carlton Brett and Matthew Vrazo nominated Sam for the Strimple Award. The Strimple Award recognizes outstanding achievement in paleontology by an amateur (someone who does not make a living full-time from paleontology). Now retired, Sam had a highly successful career as chemist and inventor at the Kodak Corporation in Rochester, New York. He has held the position of Yale Peabody Curatorial Affiliate for nearly ten years. We thank Derek Briggs and Susan Butts of Yale University for sharing their thoughts with us. (The quotations below are excerpts from the Yale letter of support for Sam’s nomination of the Strimple Award.)

Sam Ciurca has been collecting fossils since the 1960s. Initially interested in minerals, petrified wood, and a variety of other types of fossils, Sam soon focused almost exclusively on eurypterids—an extinct group of sea scorpions that lived from about 465 to about 250 million years ago and were most abundant around 400 million years ago. While eurypterids have a nearly global distribution, among the few places complete eurypterid fossils can be found are the rocks of the Silurian Bertie Group in New York and southern Ontario. Over the years, Sam amassed a huge collection of eurypterids and his specimens now reside in many museums including the Buffalo Museum of Science, Paleontological Research Institute, Smithsonian Institution, and the Yale Peabody Museum.

Most of Sam’s material makes up the Ciurca Collection in the Division of Invertebrate Paleontology at Yale which holds 11,045 specimens from 560 localities. As Briggs and Butts observe, the Ciurca Collection is recognized by eurypterid workers as comprising “more eurypterids than the rest of the world’s eurypterid collections combined.” The collection reflects the huge effort and diligence that Sam Ciurca has devoted to collecting these fossils:

“He is diligent in cultivating relationships with property owners, obtaining their permission to collect and conduct research on-site. He has tracked-down dozens of construction projects with subsurface excavation, including major road infrastructure projects in Rochester (i.e. development of the “Can of Worms” interstate interchange), numerous industrial projects such as the prolific Wegmans supermarket chain development, and has researched and found many historical localities which had not been visited in decades.”

According to Briggs and Butts, Sam’s contributions to paleontology go far beyond the fossils he collected:

“The associated taxa, minerals, and sedimentary structures that he has amassed alongside the eurypterid fossils provide invaluable information to the depositional setting and paleoecology of the Bertie Group…Mr. Ciurca’s greatest achievement is the documentation and characterization (both informally and formally, in guidebooks of the New York State Geological Association) of the lithology and stratigraphy of the Bertie Group.”

Sam’s locality information and field notes dating back to 1966 are archived at the Yale Peabody Museum and are a valued resource for researchers studying the collection. Sam continues to send field notes to the Peabody where they are digitized to document the collection. (You can view an example here.)

Briggs and Butts note that Sam has also proved to be a valued collaborator with professional paleontologists around the world, as well as students:

“Sam is consistently available to discuss our material with senior researchers, graduate students, and undergraduates, provide additional information about localities, depositional environments, and types of preservation…He is willing to use his vast experience and love of collecting and documentation to assist the research efforts of his academic counterparts – a collaboration which has been of enormous benefit to professional paleontologists.”

Sam was kind enough to respond to our interview questions and share his passion with the myFOSSIL community:

I read an article in a Buffalo, NY, newspaper that noted you saved/collected a lot of fossils from a landfill. Can you talk a little about how you made that happen?

That was the Tastings Site (see http://eurypterid.us/EurypteridsTastingsSite.html) – a restaurant was under construction and I knew they would encounter the famous “Pittsford Shale” there. Upon excavation, circumstances caused them to truck many tons of rock several miles to an abandoned gravel pit. There, with the help of a friend, we were able to recover several hundred fossil specimens. The rock is extremely fragile, quickly decomposing with any rain. We were actually able to collect the site for several months. All of the material from this site was donated in 2016 to the Paleontological Research Institute (PRI) in Ithaca, N.Y. While most of the specimens consisted of eurypterid material, there were also ostracods, Lingula, and other miscellaneous finds.

Do you have a favorite fossil find?

I consider my best find to be “Ezekiel’s Wheel” – a strange and enigmatic Late Silurian organism currently being studied at the Peabody Museum of Natural History. A close second is the large (4 foot) Pterygotid eurypterid I uncovered in Herkimer County, N.Y. (That fossil is now housed at the Paleontological Research Institute; you can view a photo online.)

"Ezekiel's Wheel." It is Late Silurian Williamsville 'A' Waterlime, Bertie Group. It is associated with abundant eurypterid fragments mostly of Eurypterus lacustris. Photo courtesy of Sam Ciurca.
“Ezekiel’s Wheel.” It is Late Silurian Williamsville ‘A’ Waterlime, Bertie Group. It is associated with abundant eurypterid fragments mostly of Eurypterus lacustris. Photo courtesy of Sam Ciurca.

Do you belong to any fossil or related clubs or organizations? If so, what kinds of benefits might amateurs and professionals gain from involvement with these groups?

Locally, I belong to the Buffalo Geological Society and the Fossil Section of the Rochester Academy of Science. I am also a member of the Paleontological Society and I think it is important to support the PS and their endeavors. The BGS is great for the large number of field trips they provide to members, exposing us to a wide and varied choice of geological sites.

Do you have any advice to share with amateur collectors, especially those just starting out?

My best advice, which I try to follow as best I can, is to log and document your finds. Visit your local museum and try to connect with others, especially those showing an interest in the kinds of fossils you are collecting. If you are purchasing fossils, try to buy only those that have documentation of some sort. Also, information on labels may lead you to new collecting sites. When I first went to Canada, it was because of some well-labeled specimens I had purchased from a large geological supply house.

eurypterids-illustratedI see that you published a book in 2010 entitled ‘Eurypterids Illustrated: The Search for Prehistoric Sea Scorpions.’ Can you tell us about the book? Can you recommend other resources for fossil collectors?

The book was a labor of love (certainly) – I did it all in Microsoft Word and had it printed locally. The front cover was designed for framing as it pictures the New York State fossil (Eurypterus remipes), the specimen I donated to the Smithsonian Institution in the 1980s. I recommend the impressive and practical book, Fossil Ecosystems of North America” by John R. Nudds and Paul A. Selden – I had the good fortune of taking Paul to a few eurypterid localities for inclusion in his chapter on “The Bertie Waterlime.”

Have you collected fossils at international locales other than Canada, such as Australia or Germany?  Where is your favorite place to collect?

I’ve not been able to visit international sites. However, with the advent of the Internet, I’ve been able to purchase specimens from important sites I could not visit, e.g. Ukraine, Scotland, Estonia. Some of those specimens (e.g. Baltoeurypterus) I’ve added to the collections at Yale so that there is study material for comparison to New York specimens I’ve collected. My favorite place to collect now is an active quarry in Ontario, Canada (the management there has been generous enough to allow collectors in the quarry one day per week and many significant finds have been made there in strata difficult to get at any other place).

The newspaper article included photos of your collection that is housed in your basement! I’m sure our readers would be interested in knowing how you organize or curate your personal collection.

Early on, I used a date system, for example “122516-1A” and the locality using permanent black ink. The letters A & B were used if I had part and counterpart. When possible, I also indicated orientation with a black arrow pointing upwards on the side of each specimen. And, for the past couple of decades at least, I took orientation photos (using a compass) of the specimen in situ and typed up field notes.

I read that thousands of your fossils ended up in several museums including the Yale Peabody (where the collection bears your name), Smithsonian, Buffalo Museum of Science, and PRI. I’m curious about the process by which the fossils you find end up in museum collections. Do you contact the museums or do the scientists reach out to you or…?

Both – the museums contacted me because of the unusual nature of the fossils I was amassing and I contacted them as they were the specialists (for example the description of the early land plant Cooksonia in our NY and Ontario Silurian rocks). More importantly, however, were contacts that resulted in field cooperation in one way or another. In the case of the Peabody Museum, I was fortunate to be able to take a post-graduate researcher across New York to document all the eurypterid localities more precisely for all the specimens in the Ciurca Collection — that was actually quite a lot of fun.

Similarly, I’ve seen that you have published scientific papers on eurypterids with co-authors from as far away as Europe and also that others have published papers on fossils you have collected. What are your thoughts about the contributions amateur paleontologists can make to the science of paleontology?

I think the science of paleontology has benefited greatly from association with amateurs – and this allows the science to proceed even when the general public seems to lack interest (unless it’s a dinosaur). Just a couple of years ago, I happened to be at the right place at the right time when a collector from Ohio found the first Silurian fish fossil (an acanthodian) from an active quarry in Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada. A couple of us suggested to him that he donate the specimen to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. He did and later a paper was published describing the new discovery. For my part, I donated the photos that documented the find.

To learn more:

You can read about the first Silurian fish fossil (an acanthodian, Nerepisacanthus denisoni) Sam mentioned above in this PLoS ONE article.

Were the extinct sea scorpions top predators? Read about some recent research findings here.

You can find the newspaper article that shows some of Sam’s home collection here.

Here is the Yale University press release about Sam’s award.

For many years, Sam has typed up notes and sent copies to the Yale Peabody Museum where they digitize them to document the Ciurca Collection. He graciously provided us with one example.

Learn more about the order Eurypterida here:

Sam’s own website: http://Eurypterids.net/EurypteridLinkIndex.html

Written-in-Stone-Seen-through-My Lens blog

The Fossil Guy website

 

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