Monday, September 28, 2009

War of the Words and I’m in the Middle

Images of Battle

A skirmish between a small detachment of raw troops boldly led by a green junior officer and a veteran regiment commanded by a grizzled officer initially went as expected. The sudden appearance of other experienced troops challenging the veteran regiment changed the complexion of the encounter. While enjoying what seemed like good theater, I realized that I was in the middle of this and it had consequences for me.

Using Words

I follow an e-mail discussion list involving professional paleontologists and others. It’s an amalgam of the trivial and the substantive, nothing usual about that. One thread struck a chord with me, prompting the war images above. Undoubtedly, these images are overdrawn and I sensed hostility where there really wasn’t any . . . perhaps.

The full content of the point and counterpoint of the skirmish is largely irrelevant. Rather, I was moved by stray cannon fire that threatened my “home.” In a nutshell, a doctoral student used terminology on the discussion list that brought a response from a heavy hitter stating that the North American Commission on Stratigraphic Nomenclature (see Notes below) had declared the specific terminology used by the student dead and buried. The proscription against this terminology, he said, was “the law.” That may have gone too far because other greybeards (I assume that’s who they were, though who knows) weighed in with more nuanced takes on the so-called criminalization of terminology – actual usage by the professionals will win out, they said.

Well, words do make a difference. Professional fields, scientific or otherwise, have a body of accepted terminology which changes as some words die off (or are killed by committee) and others are born. This mutually held terminology ensures that members of the field can communicate clearly and succinctly. Unquestionably, this terminology is also one of the weapons used to protect against the barbarians at the gate. So, a war of the words is important.

Early or Lower? Oops

In the midst of that exchange on the discussion list, there was a throw-away line about other appropriate and inappropriate word usage in geology, such as confusing two sets of adjectives – Early/Middle/Late, and Lower/Middle/Upper. Proper usage, as codified in the North American Stratigraphic Code (Article 82), dictates that the former be used to modify time or age (geochronology) while the latter should modify place or spatial relationships (lithostratigraphy).

Cripes! That stray shot hit home. I’d screwed it up in my recent posting on hunting fossils from the Devonian. (Rather sheepishly, I have since made what I think are the appropriate changes to that posting.) Taking just a moment to think about these adjectives, I can only acknowledge that their proper use is so clear and logical – time versus place. A no-brainer. But, knowing that I will be guilty of this mistake in the future, I find it amusing that this codified usage has Middle in both sets of adjectives. So much for clarity.

Coming to Blows

In the scheme of things, the skirmish in the discussion list over word usage was relatively civilized – a few written blows were struck, some sarcasm slung, and I doubt anyone came away really wounded. Restraint prevailed. I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed that this flare up died away so quickly. Perhaps I was expecting an encounter like the battle royal among paleontologists that Bret Harte (1839-1902) immortalized in his poem The Society Upon the Stanislaus (text from Complete Poetical Works – link here):

I reside at Table Mountain, and my name is Truthful James;
I am not up to small deceit or any sinful games;
And I'll tell in simple language what I know about the row
That broke up our Society upon the Stanislow.

But first I would remark, that it is not a proper plan
For any scientific gent to whale his fellow-man,
And, if a member don't agree with his peculiar whim,
To lay for that same member for to "put a head" on him.

Now nothing could be finer or more beautiful to see
Than the first six months' proceedings of that same Society,
Till Brown of Calaveras brought a lot of fossil bones
That he found within a tunnel near the tenement of Jones.

Then Brown he read a paper, and he reconstructed there,
From those same bones, an animal that was extremely rare;
And Jones then asked the Chair for a suspension of the rules,
Till he could prove that those same bones was one of his lost mules.

Then Brown he smiled a bitter smile, and said he was at fault,
It seemed he had been trespassing on Jones's family vault;
He was a most sarcastic man, this quiet Mr. Brown,
And on several occasions he had cleaned out the town.

Now I hold it is not decent for a scientific gent
To say another is an ass,—at least, to all intent;
Nor should the individual who happens to be meant
Reply by heaving rocks at him, to any great extent.

Then Abner Dean of Angel's raised a point of order, when
A chunk of old red sandstone took him in the abdomen,
And he smiled a kind of sickly smile, and curled up on the floor,
And the subsequent proceedings interested him no more.

For, in less time than I write it, every member did engage
In a warfare with the remnants of a palaeozoic age;
And the way they heaved those fossils in their anger was a sin,
Till the skull of an old mammoth caved the head of Thompson in.

And this is all I have to say of these improper games,
For I live at Table Mountain, and my name is Truthful James;
And I've told in simple language what I know about the row
That broke up our Society upon the Stanislow.

The North American Commission on Stratigraphic Nomenclature (NACSN) has “the goal of promoting uniformity in stratigraphic nomenclature throughout North America.” (link here) Stratigraphy is “[t]he branch of geology concerned with the description and classification of bodies of rock and their correlation with one another.” (The Facts on File Dictionary of Earth Science (2000))

Monday, September 21, 2009

Shells, Sand, and Sea Lilies – When Playing in the Sea Raises Questions

The writing of this post epitomized the dilemma of an amateur venturing into these subjects – composing a sentence seems only to raise thorny questions, technical or otherwise, that keep me from writing that next sentence. Well, I have relied on that timeless stratagem, make the questions the content. [Another aspect of the amateur's dilemma: After initially posting this piece, I went back and tried to correct the modifiers I used to describe time-based divisions of geologic periods -- e.g., if I'm talking time, it should be Early Devonian, not Lower Devonian.]

The Sea

Driving in the early morning in the very late summer, sun rising in a deep blue sky, a massive collection of Beach Boys songs blasting from the car radio – all’s right with the world and I’m on my way to the sea. (I wish it really were that simple.)

Northwest out of the Washington, D.C. area, the roadway rises and falls and rises again. Makes sense, since I’m driving into the area known geologically as the Allegheny Ridge and Valley province. I cross over South Mountain and skirt Fairview Mountain, moving into Washington County, deeper into Western Maryland where, well, there actually is no sea. No, not today.

But, there was . . . on occasion at least during the Devonian Period (416 to 359 million years ago). That sea encroached on the interior of the continent – an epicontinental sea – and I’m fully equipped for playing in it, my backseat is loaded with steel-toed boots, hammer, and chisels. Stones and fossils, a great day at the beach.


This area, from the beginning of the Early Devonian until the Middle Devonian (416 to 385 million years ago), apparently was underwater. I have stronger questions about where the water was in this area for the rest of the Devonian because of contradictions I find in what others have written and mapped for it. Safest assertion – sea incursions and retreats (geologically termed transgressions and regressions) marked this general area in the Devonian.

All three sites on this foray’s itinerary are Early to Middle Devonian in age. Each is in a very different rock formation: I’m in pursuit of marine fossils in Needmore Shale (part of the Hamilton Group), Keyser Limestone (part of the Helderberg Formation), and Ridgeley Sandstone (part of the Oriskany Group).

The colors used for different rock formations give a superficial beauty to geological maps. But, the maps’ inherent beauty is really in the story they are telling. Consider the small portion of a Maryland Geological Survey map reproduced above. These rock formations are like many thin fingers lying across this pinched portion of Maryland, their thinness testament to the incredible pressure brought to bear on these formations during their geological history. Notice, too, that the fingers run from the northeast to the southwest.

Maps created by state geological agencies are predictably parochial. In this map of Maryland, there is nothing, literally nothing, beyond the state’s borders. These rock formations do stretch well to the northeast and to the southwest. For example, the name Oriskany comes from the tiny town of Oriskany Falls, New York.

In describing all three of the sites I played in during this trip as Devonian, I’m following the lead of the Maryland Geological Survey in its organization of rock types and formations for its geological maps of this part of Maryland (Washington County -- link here). But, of course, things are not always as they might seem – according to other references, the Keyser Limestone element of the Helderberg Formation was laid down at the very end of the preceding period, the Silurian (see description of stop number 12 of the U.S. Geological Survey’s geological field trip found at this link).

And, in this tale, there is certainly more that falls into a gray area. For instance, the vagaries of the naming of geological formations are challenging and often frustrating – names change over time, names for the same formation change from geographic location to location. According to some geologists, Ridgeley Sandstone is the name for the rock at one of my sites; for others, it’s appropriately called Oriskany Sandstone. All apparently the same stone.

Returning to maps for a moment. I ask (of myself) one of those context setting questions that typically spins off many more questions than it answers. What did this part of the globe – the North American part (with Western Maryland in it) – look like in the Devonian Period?

Dr. Ron Blakey, professor emeritus of geology at Northern Arizona University, generously provided the map that appears below showing the North American continent 395 million years ago, near the end of the Early Devonian. (With his permission, I have circled the area of my sea excursion – look for the little red circle that doesn’t really show up unless the picture is clicked and enlarged. See note below for link to his site and other wonderful maps.)

The continent straddled the equator at the time. The equator cut through the upper left quarter of the continent, running from the upper right hand corner of the map across to the middle of the left side. The United States was oriented on an angle toward the equator – if the equator were shown, it would appear to be balancing on the northwestern tip of Washington State with the rest of the States stretching off to the south. Given its location in the mid-latitudes, the land masses here had a climate that was warm and arid.

Outcomes of the Seafaring

But, what, after all, came of this sea outing? In terms of their age, from oldest to youngest, the sequence of the sites I visited runs from Keyser Limestone to Oriskany (or Ridgeley) Sandstone to Needmore Shale. At each site, there were delicate and small (often very small) signs of ancient marine life, but not an overwhelming amount (after all, I am just the most recent of nearly innumerable visitors to each).


The Keyser Limestone site is a sloping wooded creek shoreline, with one of the largest and densest expanses of poison ivy I’ve seen – a wrong turn took me down a very narrow footpath through the bulk of it (I think I made it through unscathed). The floor of the woods is littered with pieces of limestone, many fringed in green moss. Isolated brachipod molds turn up as in this first picture. (Brachipods have appeared elsewhere in this blog; they are bivalves, each valve is symmetrical but the two are of different sizes.) Identify its genus? Perhaps later.

The second picture below shows two perspectives on what I think was the same kind of brachipod. It’s clearly a shell on the left. As for the object on the right, I’ve used Moore’s Invertebrate Fossils (1952) to identify it as also a brachiopod partial, showing the internal structures of the hinge between the two valves. But, it remains a question.


The Oriskany Sandstone site left no doubt that I was dealing with sandstone. Indeed, once I suppressed the initial thought that I’d, somehow, stumbled onto an arctic microclimate complete with snow drifts, I realized that here, as the sandstone weathers and the carbonate “cement” holding it together dissolves, it leaves behind brilliantly white quartz sand.

Still newly exposed sandstone can be tough stuff and some fossil imprints repelled all efforts to break them out of their matrix. Where chunks had broken off or developed some cracking due to weathering, progress was easier. Brachipods turned up fairly often. And then there was this.

Is this the septal (apex) end of a coral?

Sea Lilies

This Needmore Shale site defines the adjective “fissile” – the propensity of rock to split into thin sheets.

Sometimes, as the shale is split along its natural cleavage lines, fossils are revealed when you flip one shale plate off another (think turning pages in a book). Here, the fossils are likely to be crinoids, so-called “sea lilies,” an invertebrate animal often looking like a lush flower on a tall stem. In the Indiana Limestone I explored in downtown Washington, D.C. (a previous posting), the little circular sections (ossicles) of the stem often showed up. My best find at this site was a stem with several ossicles in place. As an added bonus, on the top side of this piece of shale are the faint traces of crinoid arms, the elements that extend from the crown or calyx – perhaps part of the same animal, I don’t know. So, the trip ends with questions.


For such a little rambling post, I had lots of help but only I can be blamed for errors of fact or imagination.

For an inspiring excursion, I highly recommend spending some time on Dr. Blakey’s website (link here) where he has posted many examples of the beautiful paleogeographic maps he has created. These depict not just North America over time, but the world as well.

In addition to other sources cited in the text, I would add the following: Martin F. Schmidt, Jr.’s
Maryland’s Geology (1993) is superb for taking the reader step by step through the geological history of the state. The chapter on the Devonian Period in Lynne Clos’ North America Through Time (2008) sets the Devonian scene vividly. There are several online and in print guides to fossil sites in this area. A dated guide from the Maryland Geological Survey offers some guidance – Collecting Fossils in Maryland by John D. Glaser, 1979 (revised 1995).

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Trilobites – Gifts and Givers

On Receiving Gifts

Earlier this summer, I received a gift of several fossils from my wife who found them tucked away in various nooks and crannies at a gem and mineral show being held in a high school gymnasium. I suspect that my thanks came across as tepid and perfunctory, perhaps because I immediately followed them with pointed questions about such things as the fossils’ geological provenance for which there were few answers (and I noticed that those quickly became curt and icy). In a previous post, I observed that some have said the difference between a pretty rock and fossil is the label that ties the fossil to critical identifying data. I need to clarify:

Geological provenance of a fossil is all important unless the fossil is a gift (then, that’s all you need to know about its origins).

The trilobite pictured above (3/4" long) was one of those gifts. This gift (and all of the others) should have been received with hurrahs, not the third degree – after all, it is a fossil, regardless of its pedigree and condition (repaired crack and a messed up pygidium or tail), and, to my eye, it’s a pretty fossil at that. And, now, some time later, it has served to spark a renewed interest in trilobites.

(To be fully candid, this fossil wasn’t completely “origin-less,” having a little sticker on the back that had two words scrawled on it – the second one clearly “Utah” – a helpful, plausible tidbit of identifying information. The first word began with an “M” – a town in Utah, maybe Modena? It wasn’t until I took a stab at identifying the genus and species of this specimen that the first word fell into place. I decided this is a Modocia typicalis, and suddenly it became clear that the first word on the label was “Modocia” – so much for my petty response to this pretty gift.)

Museums and Gifts

The recession is threatening natural history museums across the country. The anguish in the paleontological community is palpable as universities consider addressing budget shortfalls by, in part, cutting back or closing their museum operations. The value of these museums is incalculable. They build scientific knowledge and feed intellectual hunger; in the process, they surely open science to each new generation. I am fortunate to be a subway ride away from the constellation of wonderful museums of the Smithsonian Institution, including the National Museum of Natural History. But, even these museums, too, must be buffeted by ill economic winds and we should not take them for granted, or expect that they will always be free. Well, in fact, though no admission is charged, we all are actually paying for them since some 65 percent of their more than a billion dollars in operating revenue comes from the Federal Government.

Then there are gifts. Gifts play an important role in the generation of the Smithsonian Institution’s operating revenue. If I read the SI’s FY2008 Financial Statement correctly, perhaps close to 16 percent of the operating revenues can be attributed to contributions, investment income, earnings on endowment, and grants – all of which I’d consider to be revenue from gifts (financial statement link here).

So, given the times we’re in, I suppose it was appropriate that the day was wet and dreary when, prompted by my wife’s gift, I journeyed to the National Museum of Natural History to see the trilobites it had on display.

The NMNH’s Sant Ocean Hall (named for the Sant family, benefactors of the hall to the tune of $15 million) is a grand place, replete with many treasures, including many stunning trilobites. If you time it right, you can avoid crowds and have time to spend reading and absorbing the text that accompanies the visually impressive displays. Curiously, I, who prefer subdued light and shadows, find the Sant Ocean Hall and much of the NMNH a bit too dark (protecting the specimens, perhaps).

Still, the trilobites on display in Sant Ocean Hall take your breath away. As I stood and gaped before these complex and alien beauties, I was as happy as Larry.*

The pictures I’ve included here do a rather poor job of capturing the glory of these beasties – my technology, and the museum’s lighting and protective cases conspired against me. (Though the Smithsonian website has some pictures of its trilobites, it’s a tedious dig to uncover them. They do seem rather effectively buried.)

Curiously, the trilobite exhibit also brings the idea of gifts to the fore because many of these specimens are identified as “Donated courtesy of Robert M. Hazen.” (Curious syntax – why not “Donated by” or “A gift from”?) Robert Hazen has a very full vita, to say the least. He is a widely published earth scientist, teaches at George Mason University, is also associated with the Carnegie Institution, and plays trumpet in the National Symphony. Somehow, he also has found the time to build a spectacular collection of trilobites, comprised of some 2,000 specimens with representatives from each of the eight trilobite orders. Many of the trilobites in Hazen’s collection are graced with spines and other features that, almost without fail, are lost to such fossils. The curator of the Sant Ocean Hall, learning of Hazen’s fabulous trilobite collection, was permitted to view it. Very productive conversations apparently ensued because Hazen is donating his complete collection to the Smithsonian and some 50 of the donated trilobites are now on display in the Sant Ocean Hall. (For another photographic view, Hazen has posted pictures of a number of his trilobites at this link.) The story of this gift is told on the SI website.

Life’s Gift to Minerals

There’s more to Hazen. He is one of a group of scientists describing the history of the development of minerals on Earth and elsewhere in the universe in evolutionary terms. They speak of minerals’ co-evolution with life. They posit, “The mineralogy of terrestrial planets and moons evolves as a consequence of selective physical, chemical and biological processes.” (link here) In their construct, mineral evolution begins with the roughly 60 minerals that exist in stellar nebulae, before planets begin to take shape. Over time, as planets are formed, the number of different minerals increases significantly, particularly in response to various geological and chemical processes on those planets, among them volcanic action. On Earth, the number of minerals spiked as a consequence of the mixing and stirring of minerals by plate tectonics, reaching perhaps a thousand.

But, based on their reading of Earth history, with the advent of biological processes the number of minerals skyrockets still further. Hazen concludes that, of the 4,500 different minerals now found on Earth, some two-thirds of them were “biologically mediated.” (link here) At the heart of this explosion in different minerals were chemical reactions that involved the increasing levels of oxygen in our atmosphere and oceans being generated by ocean algae. Among other biological actions that generated minerals, according to Hazen, was the evolution of shell bearing organisms whose accumulated shells produced deposits of calcite and other minerals.

It’s a different way to see minerals -- in the aggregate, evolving over time. It’s probably not a use of the concept of evolution in a scientific setting that biologists and paleontologists find appropriate or helpful. Nevertheless, I am struck that, according to this framework, much of Earth’s mineral richness is a gift from life, and that, by implication, were we to detect similarly rich mineralogy on another planet we should certainly suspect life’s generosity.


* “As happy as Larry.” In other words, I was very happy. I first encountered the expression “as happy as Larry” in Richard Fortey’s book Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution (he used it describe a period of his life when he worked on trilobites and literally lived in the Sedgwick Museum at Cambridge, England). The expression may have been first coined in Australia in the late 1800s prompted by boxer Larry Foley’s undefeated record; he retired after a final, lucrative bout, presumably very happy. Or “Larry” may be a corruption of “larrikin,” a term used in Australia in the late 1800s to describe young, rowdy thugs who wore colorful outfits.

Among other sources that discuss the origins of the expression is From Hue & Cry to Humble Pie: Curious, Bizarre & Incomprehensible Expressions Explained by Judy Parkinson (2000) (link here) One web source in the U.K. (link here) purports to provide the first known instance of the use of this phrase in print (New Zealand writer G.L. Meredith, around 1875):
We would be as happy as Larry if it were not for the rats.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Nero Wolfe & Orchids, Ammonites, and Secrecy

Secrecy. Conjures up nefarious deeds, people up to no good. During the fight over the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act, opponents attacked the legislation for requiring fossil locations on federal land to be kept secret. (“Violates scientific principles,” they railed. They failed to turn back the legislation – see previous posts on topic.) The other perspective on secrecy was on display in two recent articles about rare natural specimens being shielded from aggressive collectors.

Nero Wolfe

But, I didn’t consider a posting on collecting and secrecy until I felt the need to deal with some of life’s stresses by doing what I sometimes do under those circumstances, beat a retreat to detective Nero Wolfe’s Manhattan brownstone on West 35th Street (the house number is uncertain, at times the actual street is uncertain as well). With Archie Goodwin doing the legwork, there is such reassuring pleasure in being with Wolfe in the midst of a murder case. Frankly, the mysteries, recounted in Archie’s breezy style, aren’t the attraction. Rather, it’s the relief of being in that oasis of the ordered and familiar within the brownstone. Theodore Horstmann is at work on the more than 20,000 orchids in the top floor plant rooms or the potting room, joined by Wolfe each morning until 11 a.m. Fritz Brenner is in the kitchen creating gourmet masterpieces. Wolfe caps off a gastronomical feast with beer. I take great comfort when the detective says, “I rarely leave my home.”

Author Rex Stout’s fictional world lives on, giving succor, nearly 35 years after his death.

What prompted this posting was that the Wolfe story that came to hand from my library was the novella Black Orchids, one of those rarities in the Wolfe oeuvre in which the great detective actually spends a protracted period away from the brownstone. The world’s only black orchids are on display at a flower show and, given his deep orchid obsession, Wolfe has to see them for himself. It’s fascinating how far he will go to add these plants to his collection – not just leaving the brownstone, but, how about blackmail?

Clearly, collectors on the hunt are a threat.

Canby’s Bog Orchid in Maryland

To what lengths would most of us go to secure that special specimen for own collections? A recent article in the Washington Post offers one take. Recently, a rare orchid, Canby’s bog orchid (Platanthera X canbyi), appeared on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in the Nassawango Creek Preserve. Because this natural hybrid of two rare orchids hasn’t been seen in Maryland for a couple of decades, Joe Fehrer, who manages the preserve for the Nature Conservancy, only reluctantly agreed to announce the discovery, insisting that the exact location remain a secret.

Discussing orchid collectors, so-called “orchid heads,” Fehrer is quoted as saying, "They come here and search out rare orchids for their own gratification and remove them. . . . Which makes them all the more rare. We need to be careful. Some of these folks are real sleuths." (Hmmm, I doubt that sleuth Wolfe would consider traipsing through a tick-infested bog even with Platanthera X canbyi as the quarry.)

Fehrer protected the orchid long enough to ensure that its flowers faded and went to seed; one hopes they give rise to a colony of these plants.

Of course, despite the secrecy, orchid heads did find the flower, reportedly posting pictures of it online. The Post reporter quotes horticulture professor Scott Stewart as saying of orchid heads (he is a self-professed one) and their quest for a rare orchid, "The vast majority of us just want to see it. . . . Say they've seen it and check it off their ‘life list’ of orchids they want to view. But there is an extreme element. They want to dig it up and put it in their own personal collection, even if it's illegal. Just to have the satisfaction of knowing that they have it and no one else does fulfills something in their psyche."

[Environmental Intrigue on the Eastern Shore, Brigid Schulte, Washington Post, August 22, 2009 – link here.]

Ammonites in New Jersey

This is NOT the site in question.

Somewhere near Freehold, New Jersey, is a stream site giving up fossils of ammonites that may have survived the KT extinction at the end of the Cretaceous Period, though perhaps by only no more than a hundred years, so reports an article in the September, 2009, issue of Scientific American. This runs counter to the common understanding that ammonites completely expired in the KT extinction. Fascinating finding, if borne out by subsequent research.

I’ve screened for Cretaceous fossils in New Jersey, specifically at Big Brook (shown above). Perhaps this site bears some resemblance to Big Brook, though clearly the density of the thorny undergrowth guarding the unnamed stream is special, leading the New Jersey park ranger who discovered the site to call it Agony Creek.

Scientists have been working the site for several years, but the precise location has been kept secret in an effort to prevent looting. Apparently, those efforts have been successful though “poachers have already trawled nearby areas, on the prowl for fossil shark teeth.” I wonder if an article such as this redirects the “fossil heads” to ammonites.

[Digging Up Valuable Fossils in Suburban New Jersey: A fossil search for why some critters made it past the dinosaur-killing event, Charles Q. Choi, Scientific American Magazine, August 25, 2009 - link here.]


I do experience the collector’s impulse to find that beautiful or rare specimen (paleontological, in my case), so I understand that. What I don’t understand is the drive to collect regardless of the larger consequences, to destroy in that effort. But, clearly, it happens . . . often. Even Wolfe succumbed to blackmail in his drive to own the black orchids. As a result, I have come to accept fully that secrecy is a key weapon for those who are responsible for protecting and preserving irreplaceable natural treasures whether they be paleontological like the New Jersey ammonites or living plants like Canby’s bog orchid in Maryland. Without the financial resources to station guards at every important site or to erect barricades to wall out the unscrupulous collector, secrecy is critical. The Paleontological Resources Preservation Act got it right when it said anyone with a permit to gather fossils on federal land cannot reveal data about the location of the collection site without the Secretary’s written permission.

And When Secrecy Is No Longer An Option?

My favorite story of dealing with overly enthusiastic collectors (and the unscrupulous) after any chance of secrecy is blown and the site is readily accessible involves Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Connecticut (subject of a previous posting on this blog). In 1966, during the initial stages of building a new Connecticut State Highway Commission building, a bulldozer operator spotted the first of thousands of dinosaur tracks in slabs of sandstone. The project engineer informed higher ups, as well as the press. As a result, the site was invaded by collectors armed with hammers and saws. But, the Highway Commission responded quickly, stopping the project and protecting the site with fencing and, indeed, armed guards. Paleontologists were brought to the site and, based on their recommendation and legislative and executive responses, the area was designated a state park -- three weeks after the site was first discovered!!!

[This account is based on material on the Wesleyan University web site -- link here.]

A couple of informative postscripts to this story. First, though it’s probably apocryphal, it was rumored that when the Highway Department restarted its interrupted building project on a nearby site, the standing order for the bulldozer operators was to proceed at all costs, regardless of what turned up.

Second, just three years ago, new prints were found in another local construction site, but construction proceeded because the tracks were deemed to be of much lesser quality than those at Dinosaur State Park. These more recently discovered tracks were laid down in shale and so were more easily damaged than those at the State Park. In sharp dissent, the Hartford Courant newspaper reportedly editorialized, "The state treats tracks as if the giant reptiles were still making them. . . .The dinosaurs who made the latest set of tracks apparently lived in a bad part of town – the reptilian equivalent of a ghetto." Fine righteous anger.

[Article on new find posted on September 6, 2006 on the site -- link here.]
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