Scientists in New Jersey Working Hard to Preserve Dinosaur Trace Fossils

Palaeontologists and geologists are working hard to gather as much scientific data as possible from a site rich in Jurassic trace fossils before the building of a new housing development is completed.

The location, part of an extensive development of more than 800 residential homes is in Passaic County, in the north of the U.S. state of New Jersey, the site and surrounding quarries have provided scientists with a number of fossils including a variety of dinosaur footprints preserved in the sandstone strata.

The state of New Jersey is synonymous with important dinosaur discoveries, one of the most complete dinosaur fossils known at the time and the first officially noted dinosaur fossil bone discovery in the United States was made at Haddonfield, New Jersey.  These fossils turned out to be the bones of a duck-billed dinosaur, it was named Hadrosaurus foulkii, although this genus is now regarded as Nomen dubium (the validity of this genus is in doubt).

Meetings have been taking place between Montclair State University professors, state museum geologists and representatives of the building company to discuss how best to preserve the newly discovered dinosaur tracks without holding up the building works.

Locations in the north of New Jersey have provided scientists with a number of dinosaur trackways to study, Dr. Matthew Goring, a professor of Earth and environmental sciences at Montclair State University commented:

“It’s important to preserve as much as you can, but what they can save depends on how they [the builders] excavate the rock.  In some cases there’s just no way to hope the guys digging with a backhoe are going to recognise what they are digging.”

As the large blocks of sandstone are removed, plans are in place for geologists from the New Jersey State Museum (Trenton) to examine them and identify important fossils.

Dr. Goring went on to add:

“They’ll be big blocks of rock that they will pick up and put in a pile that will be well worth going through.”

However, finding any fossils is the easy part, as Dr. Goring admits, if the geologists do find anything of interest they will have the challenge of transporting and rocks to a safe area where they can be properly studied.

Dr. Goring put it succinctly when he said:

“Even to just preserve twenty yards of trackway is just tons and tons of rock.”

Retired school teacher Chris Laskowich, has lived in the area for many years and has spent a great deal of time studying the dinosaur tracks and other fossils found in the area.  He put together a petition with more than a 1,000 signatures requesting that this site, marked for building work, could be preserved because of its scientific interest.

Chris stated:

“This one in particular, what’s called the UBC Quarry, has been called the most important quarry in New Jersey and on this side of the Atlantic for the number of species of plants and animals it shows from the beginning of the Jurassic period.”

Exposed fossil bearing strata from the Early Jurassic is particularly valuable to scientists, there are few exposed deposits worldwide and there is still much to learn about the diversity of Mesozoic life around 200 million years ago.  Indeed the entire Triassic/Jurassic geological boundary is still blurred and a revision of the start of the Jurassic period is due to be considered by the International Commission of Stratigraphy (ICS).

Mr Laskowich said that the dinosaur tracks represent a number of genera and they range in size from under 3cm to over 35cm long and stated that the site was:

“extremely prolific and it is a shame that it was touched at all”

A spokesman for the construction company said that they had began construction back in 2005 and had called in geologists as construction was nearing completion.  He commented that the company was excited about working with the museum teams to help preserve and record a bit of the history of the area.  The spokesman emphasised the close working relationship between the construction firm, the local community and the scientists.

John McCauley, a professional microbiologist and amateur palaeontologist had put together another petition, this time urging the location of the trackways to be excluded from the development, but as most of the tracks are to be found on private land already approved for building this is not a likely course of action.

He stated:

“Hopefully they can make some agreement where they can preserve these fossils.”

He went onto explain that allowing geologists to sift through excavated piles of rock was not ideal because knowing specifically where the tracks had laid was very important.

Officials and Scientists Discuss Progress at the Building Site

Picture Credit: K. Hovnanian

Officials at Passaic County have urged all parties to consider issues regarding health and safety, stating that they did not want unauthorised individuals coming to the construction site.

A curator at the state museum, David Parris, visited the dig site last week, with other interested parties, as although the museum  had already removed some fossils from this location, the builders and uncovered new material.

He stated:

“In the course of the construction they uncovered one exposure of rock that has not been seen or previously investigated.”

He went on to add that staff from the museum were willing to work after hours to excavate the new material and that everyone there would do their best to preserve the scientific material that comes out of the site.

Let us hope that a compromise can be reached, cooperation between all the interested parties is paramount in situations like this, after all, Jurassic footprints stopped being made approximately 144 million years ago.

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