A treasure trove of fossil nautiloids—squid-like animals found in ancient seas—that date back 380 million years to the Devonian time period have been found on campus and traced to a source outcrop in upstate New York.
The find is detailed in a recent article by Martin Becker, professor of environmental science; Harry Maisch IV, an adjunct professor of environmental science, and students Christi Kline ’19 and Clint Mautz ’19 in Palaeontologia Electronica, the largest electronic paleontology journal in the world.
The article describes nearly a decade’s worth of research documenting the source of the fossils—a small outcrop in Clarksville, New York, about 25 miles west of Albany and 127 miles north of Wayne. It also marks the first time that scientists have documented the climactic forces that resulted in the deposit of the specimens on and near the University campus.
As Becker notes, fossils such as these provide an opportunity to appreciate the true age of the earth and how climate systems operate across time. “The exposure of our students and the campus community to these fossils and the geologic history they represent is critical as we address the complex problem of climate change and the role humans play in the process.”
The fossils are known as glacial erratics. “Upstate New York was covered by a shallow sea 380 million years ago,” Maisch explains. “As these sea creatures died and fell to the sea floor—and sea levels rose and fell—the nautiloids were buried and eroded and then brought back to the surface.”
Eventually, the ancient sea retreated, and an ice age developed, with a glacier covering the region as far south as what today is central New Jersey. “When the glacial ice began to move over the source of these fossils, it plucked out chunks of rock and essentially sent them down along what today is the New York State Thruway over a period of about two million years,” says Becker.
When the glaciers began to melt, the glacial erratics were left behind, “like the sprinkles that are left after your ice cream melts,” Maisch says. The fossils were concentrated within a cone that extends from the source in New York, to the pinpoint bottom, which is, essentially, the campus.
Becker and Maisch describe the University’s collection, which currently numbers several hundred, as significant. “Many of the fossils we have found are superior to those found near the source outcrop,” says Becker. “The physical and chemical weathering that has revealed their features, as well as the great distance they traveled from the source has led us to uncover a fabulous collection of fossils.”
The project has provided a significant field study opportunity for students in a range of environmental science classes. Becker and Maisch regularly take students fossil hunting on campus, giving them a hands-on look at the campus as a field laboratory. “This is a jewel of a campus to teach environmental science,” says Becker, noting the location adjacent to High Mountain Park Preserve, as well as a watershed on the property as well.
For students Kline and Mautz, the fossils provided a unique research opportunity and the opportunity to participate in writing an article for publication, an experience they both say, that has had a profound impact.
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