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Roaring Back to Life: The State Museum steps back 3.5 billion years to explore New Jersey’s geology

August 31 , 2016

by Ilene Dube

They’re back!

The skeleton of the Dryptosaurus, the world’s first carnivorous dinosaur, has been reassembled in all its glory.

The New Jersey State Museum has re-opened its natural history hall with an exhibition, “Written in the Rocks: Fossil Tales of New Jersey.” On a recent weekday morning, a group of 4- to 8-year-olds from Trenton’s Divine Kidz Academy filled a classroom, transfixed by Assistant Curator of Science Education Dr. Diane Bushman as she talked about chemistry, atoms and digging for dinosaurs. “These are a great group of curious kids,” she said. “They get to practice paleontology skills with tubs of fossils, figuring out which are real and which are models. It’s a chance to get messy, digging with trowels.”

”Written in the Rocks” steps back 3.5 billion years to explore the geology of New Jersey; the oldest fossils from the state; and the evolution of life through fossil stories. These remnants from ancient times provide clues about our ever-changing planet and how fish, amphibians, turtles, birds, reptiles and mammals have evolved and adapted.

”We are very excited to have life-size dinosaurs in the Natural History Hall again,” says Curator of Natural History David Parris. “Dinosaurs were a highlight for generations of New Jerseyans who visited the museum, and we are pleased to once again be able tell the story of these fossils, New Jersey’s role in their discovery, and how they relate to our planet.” The Dryptosaurus, a cousin of Tyrannosaurus Rex, was discovered in southern New Jersey in 1866.

The museum commissioned the Dryptosaurus model from Research Casting International, using the museum’s casts of the original specimen and paleoartist Charles R. Knight’s 1897 painting of Dryptosaurus.

”In the mid 20th century, people thought dinosaurs were capable of fighting, and Knight depicted the Dryptosaurus as a fighting creature during the Cretaceous period,” says Mr. Parris, emphasizing the importance of a gift from the New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Corporation to make the commission possible.

Although not around when the dinosaurs were, Mr. Parris has been at the museum for a long time. As he passes a fire extinguisher, whose door has come ajar, and pushes it shut, he says “I’ve been closing that door since 1971.”

Freshly armed with master’s degrees in geology from Princeton University and paleontology from the South Dakota Institute of Mining and Technology, Mr. Parris worked his way up through the geology collection, then as science registrar, assistant curator, to curator in 1985. “Geologically, things haven’t changed that much,” says Mr. Parris, a West Windsor resident.

But the collection has vastly expanded, thanks to fieldwork done in recent years, from which 100 scientific publications were produced, showcasing the museum as an academic institution. “Not only have we added to the collection but to the knowledge of paleontology and geology of New Jersey and beyond,” Mr. Parris says. The museum does field research at its Natural History Field School in the Bighorn Basin of Montana, where the scientific environment during the Cretaceous Period (more than 66 million years ago, following the Jurassic Period) was similar to New Jersey’s. Today, the density of population and the built environment make it difficult to access fossils in the Garden State, “although most of our work is in New Jersey,” Mr. Parris says. “It’s a great place to live if you’re a paleontologist.

”We love to get youngsters excited about these objects — we’re specimen people,” continues Mr. Parris who, as a child, developed an interest in the biological sciences while living with missionary parents in Nigeria. “It was a wonderful mind-expanding experience to live in a foreign country when I was 4 until 7. Children are interested in exotic things, and we show how they relate to New Jersey.”

Not only is the natural history hall humming with youngsters studying with Dr. Bushman, but volunteers and interns working in the laboratories add to the academic atmosphere.

Jason Fresolone, a North Hunterdon High School grad headed to Stockton College to study biology, has volunteered at the museum, where he works with the shell collection, for two summers. He recounts being an angry child until his parents took him to the American Museum of Natural History where he saw dinosaurs fighting and realized there was something in the world he really cared about. About working with Mr. Parris, Mr. Fresolone says “he’s so soft spoken but always has something interesting to say.”

Working with tubs of fossils and bones in the public laboratory, Laurel Nestor-Pasicznyk, a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts pursuing a career in scientific illustration, has been volunteering for three summers, and is co-authoring, with Mr. Parris, a paper on sea turtles, forthcoming in “The Mosasaur,” the journal of the Delaware Valley Paleontological Society.

What, exactly, are fossils? Are they the actual bones, or the impressions left in rock? “Fossils started as bone,” Mr. Parris explains, “and became the mineral that led to it being preserved.” Minerals, or stones, are examined by geologists, paleontologists, archaeologists and others to learn about the people and creatures who came before us.

In 2012, amateur fossil hunter Greg Harpel brought a bone fragment he found to Mr. Parris, who recognized it as a perfect fit with a fossil discovered in 1849. “Never before have two pieces of the same bone been discovered in different centuries and fit perfectly like puzzle pieces,” Mr. Parris says. The pieces make up the only known fossil from Atlantochelys Mortoni, an extinct sea turtle from Upper Cretaceous New Jersey.

In another instance of piecing together the puzzle, the Basilemys turtle fossil from 60 million years ago was found shattered in Carbon County, Montana, during the Bighorn Basin Dinosaur Project’s 2013 field expedition. Mr. Parris and his team carried out the eroded fragments from the site wrapped in a blanket, then researchers used tiny air-powered jackhammers to slowly chip away the hardened iron carbonate mineral stone, revealing a nearly complete turtle. The fossil dates from the time that dinosaurs went extinct; “Basil,” as its been nicknamed, lived right alongside the last of the T. Rex and Triceratops and the fossil may be one of the most complete examples of this species.

Mr. Parris is also excited about the hall’s polar bears, as they help to tell the story of the Ice Age, and the skeleton of a creature that is neither an elk nor moose, though resembles both, from Warren County in the Ice Age. Educational opportunities allow visitors to touch and feel the fossils.

”Written in the Rocks” is the next stage in the renovation of the Natural History Hall, according to NJSM Executive Director Margaret O’Reilly. “The museum was founded as a science museum, and dinosaurs and fossils have long been an important part of it. Spring 2017 will see the return of New Jersey’s state dinosaur, Hadrosaurus foulkii, and a full size Mosasaur. We hope that these amazing specimens inspire generations of future scientists, and promote a love of science and discovery in children and adults.”

To that end, the STEAM Center, an adjoining instructional space, offers programs with a focus on hands-on science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics. Families with young children are encouraged to visit the Discovery Den, with its native creatures puppet theater, costumes for naturalists, paleontologists and astronomers, butterfly wings and a playhouse tent.

And the museum offers a quarterly SMASH event. SMASH stands for Spectacularly Merging Art, Science and History. The next SMASH event will take place Aug. 20, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and will highlight astronomy and feature fine art connections. Visitors can participate in crafts, games and activities. The final SMASH event of the year will take place Nov. 12 and will delve into New Jersey’s past with the museum’s archaeology team to discover stories that make New Jersey uniquely New Jersey.



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