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Mystery Fossils?



This press release came to us and we are passing it along.

Editors: a photo of the fossil is available at
http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/Feb99/glass_sponge.hrs.html



ITHACA, N.Y. -- Cornell University paleontologists are enlisting the
public's help in the search for some unusual 375
million-year-old fossils in upstate New York and northern Pennsylvania.
Dating to the Devonian geological period, when an
inland sea covered much of what is now the Northeast United States, the
fossils are roughly the size and shape of a human
hand. Some are made of black, glassy material (See "Have You Found This
Fossil?" attached) while others are tan to brown
in color.

They're certainly not hands, but exactly what the fossilized organisms
were is not clear.

"We could be looking at the root of a branching glass sponge, something
like later glass-sponge fossils reported in
Pennsylvania and New York," says Cornell paleontologist John Chiment,
who is leading the search. "The tops of branching
glass sponges are known from the Devonian period, but they've been
missing from the fossil record ever since. Or, this could
be a very different organism that is unknown to science."

Chiment urges people to contribute to paleontological history by
contacting him if they find similar fossils. He can be reached
at (607) 255-1010, e-mail jjc1@cornell.edu. More information and
photographs of the fossils -- as well as drawings of what
the fossils may be -- are found at this website:
http://www.geo.cornell.edu/glasssponge.html

The mysterious fossils first came to the university's attention late
last year after auto mechanic Michael Potts dug a hole for a
gasoline tank in Interlaken, N.Y. At about the 15-foot level, Potts
noticed an abundance of limestone boulders that resembled
lumpy footballs and basketballs, and planned to use the "cement
basketballs" to line his horse corral.

While moving the boulders, Potts noticed odd discolorations and broke
one open to reveal a glassy black structure. The
mysterious object passed to a neighbor who showed it to Chiment on the
Cornell commuter bus one morning. Chiment, who is
an instructor in Cornell's Department of Geological Sciences and
lectures frequently on the fossils of North America,
recognized the object's uniqueness. Experts at Cornell and at Ithaca's
Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) could not
immediately identify the fossil.

Then this past December, while speaking at local schools, Chiment turned
up two more: Trumansburg second grader Brandon
Greene brought one in for show-and-tell, recalling that his father
unearthed the object while plowing a nearby farm field and
thought it might be a Native American artifact. And Romulus High School
Principal Michael Midey had one from his days of
leading earth science field trips in the Romulus area.

Meanwhile, a search of the scientific literature and of the fossil
collections at PRI and Cornell turned up some clues:

-- Fossils called Titusvillia drakei, believed to be glass sponges from
about 300 million years ago, were found near Titusville,
Pa., in the early 1900s.

-- Around the same time, glass sponge-like fossils labeled
Protoarmstrongia ithacensis were found in an rock quarry near
Ithaca; these were dated to the Devonian period, about 365 million years
ago. Both the Pennsylvannia and New York
specimens are younger in geological terms than the hand-like fossils.
Both the Titusville and the Ithaca glass sponge fossils
display a distinctive nodular growth pattern. Neither has the smooth
branching structure of the recently discovered fossils.

-- The only living example of a branching glass sponge was hauled from
the ocean depths off the Philippines in 1870 by the
crew of the British Challenger expedition, the first around-the-world
oceanographic survey. Not a single branching glass
sponge has been found since by scientists, and the whereabouts of the
Challenger specimen is uncertain.

"For all we know, today's deep ocean may have plenty of branching glass
sponges," says Cornell paleontologist Sande Burr.
Explaining the differences among sponge types, she notes that sponges
have skeletons made of one of three kinds of materials
-- silica glass, calcium carbonate or the protein of bath sponges.
"Sponge fishermen who drag the deep ocean for more
attractive glass sponges, like the Venus flower basket, may be throwing
back branching glass sponges because they have no
economic value," she says. "They're probably pretty ugly."

Cornell students in Geology 106, Chiment's class in fossil preparation,
don't think so. The undergraduates are busily extracting
glassy black structures from boulders that once graced the Interlaken
horse corral, and they'd like to have more.

"Potentially, we're looking everywhere from northern Pennsylvania
through central and western New York to the Great
Lakes," Chiment says. "The southern examples will probably be younger,
geologically speaking, whilet his still-unnamed older
fossil is more likely to turn up farther north."

Chiment adds, "But we'd like to be surprised. We don't even know for
sure what this thing is. We just know that it deserves a
place in the fossil record, and we need some help putting it there."

Have You Found This Fossil?

If so, contact John Chiment,

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