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Bone by bone, fossil found in a Rowan dig takes shape on a lab floor

August 31 , 2016

by David O'Reilly

For eons he rested undisturbed, his once watery tomb long dry.

And now, under an oscillating fan, two young men were clearing the earth under his head with a paint brush and dental pick, freeing a fragment of him ever so carefully.

"Guys, it's moving," 27-year-old Ian Putnam called out, squeezing a drop of fossil hardener called Paleo Bond onto a two-inch length of bone. "It's ready to come out."

Beneath Putnam on a laboratory floor of Rowan University, wrapped in plaster on a bed of green sand, lay the pale, tan remains of thoracosaurus: a crocodile that 65 million years ago swam the ocean waters that receded to become New Jersey.

"This is an awesome find," Paul Ullmann, a vertebrate paleontologist with Rowan's new school of geology, had marveled minutes earlier as he showed off the croc's jawbone and fearsome teeth. Its sex, he conceded, "we may never know."

Discovered in June in nearby Mantua, thoracosaurus is just the latest fossil treasure to emerge from the packed earth of Gloucester County.

Such ancient bones might also grow the brand of this once sleepy state college. Early this year, Rowan acquired the 65-acre Inversand sand mine and fossil park in Mantua, for $1.95 million, as part of its new School of Earth and Environment.

Putnam and 17-year-old Brian Kibelstis - volunteer "diggers" who also perform lab work - swiped carefully beneath pieces of thoracosaurus' skull.

Putnam finally gripped the emerging bone with his thumb and forefinger, gently rocked it free, and handed it to Ullman. "Will you tag that, please?" he asked.

Ullmann, who needed no such prompting, studied it momentarily. "My guess is it's from the cheek area," he said, before logging its location onto a grid drawn in a notebook.

In addition to incorporating Rowan's long-standing geography program, the School of Earth and Environment will offer degrees in environmental science and geology starting in 2017. The latter will include a concentration in paleontology, the study of fossilized plants and animals.

It's a program only a handful of American universities offer, and paying jobs in the field "are few and highly competitive," said Ullmann.

But with the legendary Mantua tract so close to the campus, and containing a "gold mine" of fossils from the late Cretaceous/early Paleogene era, a paleontology program is an "ideal" fit for Rowan, said Ullmann.

Sitting in a rumpled shirt at one of the lab's two wooden workbenches, Ullmann, 30, admitted it was an ideal fit for him, too.

"When I turned 3 I had a dinosaur-themed birthday party, and I'm still that kid," he said, with a glance around the room that took in two table saws, magnifying glasses, a small refrigerator bearing the words "Not for food," and dozens of shelves crowded with bone boxes and marked with intriguing titles such as "Egypt," "Patagonia," and catapleura repanda.

The thoracosaurus fossil is not the first of its species found at the Mantua site, which has been yielding up ancient bones since the 1920s. The Inversand company mined it for its green magnesium sand - which it sold as a water softener - while diligently protecting the fossil sites from swift-rising groundwater.

The new crocodile head and jaw is the best set of its species to come out of the pit, said Ullmann.

What makes the Mantua site so valuable to paleontologists, said Kenneth Lacovara, founding dean of the School of Earth and Environment, is that the Inversand mining operation exposed so much fossil record.

Lacovara, a renowned paleontologist formerly on the faculty of Drexel University, said the school will be exploring whether the Mantua site was formed as an immediate result of a catastrophic asteroid strike on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula 65 million years ago.

Debris thrown into the atmosphere by the six-mile-wide bolide so profoundly changed Earth's climate, most paleontologists agree, that it killed off about three-fourths of the animal species living at the time, including dinosaurs and creatures such as thoracosaurus.

Most of the land mass that is now New Jersey was under 100 feet of ocean then, Ullmann explained. Rowan's newly found crocodile likely sank straight to the bottom, but its carcass might have been washed there by currents, or its parts carried by predators.

"In this bone bed you can find everything from an isolated fragment of bone, to an isolated complete bone, to a full [animal] with complete articulation," he said.

And as more specimens emerge, their variety and vertical spread "should provide us with clues as to how quickly the remains were buried, the strength or weakness of bottom currents in the ocean at the time," and a better understanding of the asteroid strike and its consequences.

"At our current pace it takes us 10 years to dig an acre," he said. "So we have 650 years ahead of us on the property."



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