by Shari Ellis
Whenever I ask paleontologists—pros or amateurs—the key to getting children and youth interested in the science, the answer is always to get them out in the field and actually collecting fossils. Rowan University, a public institution in New Jersey, is taking the advice to heart. They recently purchased a nearby quarry that experts regard as the best site east of the Mississippi River to learn about the Cretaceous period when dinosaurs walked the Earth.
Sixty-six millions years ago, the 65 acres now known as the Rowan University Fossil Park was at the bottom of a shallow sea. The layers that formed encase many fossils including marine snails, brachiopods, bryozoan colonies, shark teeth, bony fish, sea turtles, marine crocodiles, and mosasaurs. Of particular interest is the fact that the skeletons of the largest creatures are found almost completely intact, which suggests they all may have died suddenly and at the same time.
This amazing site was almost lost to all who love paleontology. The Inversand Company had been mining manganese greensand from the pit for 80 years. The sand, called “marl,” was widely used in water treatment plants, but with environmental regulations the quarry became unprofitable. As a result plans were made to fill in the pit and possibly develop the area with apartments and a shopping center. Fortunately for paleontology, the economic recession of 2007 put those plans on hold.
Enter Dr. Kenneth Lacovara, an internationally recognized paleontologist from Drexel University. Lacovara wanted to preserve the quarry as a dig site and museum; Inversand supported the idea and helped Lacovara and his fellow paleontologists by diverting water away from the valuable fossils – but eventually this became economically unviable. The local township wanted to buy the quarry, but lacked the necessary funds. Meanwhile, Lacovara led a team of international researchers who discovered a new species of titanosaur they named Dreadnoughtus schrani in the Patagonia region of Argentina.
Back in New Jersey, Lacovara met with Rowan University president Dr. Ali A. Houshmand. Housmand wanted Lacovara—who was himself a graduate of Rowan University back when it was known as Glassboro State College—to return to his alma mater and become dean of a new school of earth sciences. Lacovara agreed—if Rowan would purchase the quarry.
Since 2012, Lacovara has hosted community dig days at the park in partnership with the local township’s Economic Development Council. To date, nearly 10,000 individuals have hunted for fossils in the park. The park also hosts school groups and other community organizations. Plans for the future include the establishment of a science center focusing on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education.
To get on a waiting list for future dig days, contact Michelle Bruner from the township’s economic development office at [email protected] or call (856)-468-1500, ext. 122.
To learn more:
Read more about the fossil park in the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/05/science/behind-a-shopping-center-in-new-jersey-signs-of-a-mass-extinction.html?_r=0
Follow Dr. Lacovara on Twitter: @kenlacovara