Rowan University Buys Fossil Park to Further Education

By Michael Hill

Forty-five feet below sea level — in a sand quarry — Rowan University researchers meticulously dig for signs of prehistoric creatures at this 65-acre fossil park. The school bought it in January for nearly $2 million.

“This is the second most common shark’s tooth we find. But one this big is rare,” said Paul Ullman, a researcher at Edelman Fossil Park.

In another dig this summer, they unearthed this 65 million-year-old extinct member of the crocodile family, scooped it up into a cast and brought it back to their Glassboro campus lab.

Senior arts major Megan Fleischer gingerly uses a dental pick and a soft paintbrush to look for skull bones and fragments.

“It’s really great. It’s really humbling that I get to help with all these amazing things,” Fleischer said.

She was one of those kids you couldn’t separate from her dinosaurs in awe of their big teeth.

“It’s really surreal,” she said. “I remember the first time I went out to the fossil pit, on the way home I called my mom I was like crying and screaming. I was like, ‘Mom! Dinosaurs! We’re doing it. It’s real!’”

The team pieces the bones together like a puzzle and uses a special glue to hold them in place.

“I think this will definitely be one of our nice display pieces,” said Ullman, who is also paleontologist at Rowan. “We know we have a long section of jaw. Some of it laid out right over here where we have at least eight teeth preserved in sequence through that portion of the jaw. That for us at this site is a great find.”

“I am imaging glass spherals,” said Kristyn Voegele, a paleontologist at Rowan.

Remnants of an asteroid. Rowan paleontologists are testing the hypothesis that 65 million years ago an asteroid hit the Earth and wiped out nearly three-quarters of its plants and animals, making the dinosaurs extinct. Their conclusion?

“The presence of these spherals supports the hypothesis that the asteroid impact is somehow related to the fossil layer and the accumulation of fossils,” Voegele said.

A bona fide bed of bones behind a South Jersey shopping center may be the graveyard to first prove the asteroid theory. This used to be the Atlantic Ocean which is now some 40 miles away. Renowned paleontologist and fossil park director Kenneth Lacovara says there are some dinosaur remains here — perhaps deeper in the pit, but not on the scale of the monumental mass of marine life — the focus of their research.

“So we find mosasaurs which are like komodo dragons, as long as a bus with paddles for limbs and a six-foot jaw and they actually have a second set of teeth at the back of their throats that actually points backwards to keep you from swimming back out. Sea monsters basically,” Lacovara said.

“We have a whole unit of rock that’s very rich in fossils but there’s one particularly productive horizon where crocodiles and large specimens like this one come out of,” Ullmann said. “We concentrate our science, our research on that layer to figure out what happened there. Why are there more fossils in this layer?”

That leaves a huge field for school children and others — 10,000 this year — to explore.

Ullmann said, “99 percent of what visitors find they can take home.”

Anticipate a lot more of that because this fall Rowan alumni Jean and Ric Edelman — founders of Edelman Financial Services — donated $25 million to rename the fossil park in their honor and to develop it on the scale of the Smithsonian.

The Edelman gift is one that will keep giving because of what the university has planned for this fossil park.

Is this going to be Jersey’s Jurassic Park?

“Yes, absolutely,” Ullmann said. “We’d love something like a gate over the front entrance. Yup, something like that would be cool,” said Ullman.

“They’ve elected to use their energy and resources to really lift this place up and to make it into something truly amazing,” Lacovara said.

Dr. Lacovara knows amazing. More than a decade ago in Argentina, he led the team that found and unearthed a huge part of the 65 ton, adolescent dinosaur nicknamed Dreadnoughtus, one of the biggest species of animals to ever roam the earth.

Last year, Lacovara became Rowan’s founding dean of its School of Earth and Environment.

He envisions the Edelman gift leading to a museum and much more making the park a major tourist destination of discovery and citizen science. He points out that a third of the U.S. population lives within a day’s drive of the Edelman Fossil Park.

“This will become a global tourist attraction,” said Lacovara. “We already know now that when we open up the park for community dig days — for example, this last one in September — that 2,000 spots filled up online — when we opened up registration — in 23 minutes. Two families drove overnight from Michigan, families drove down from Connecticut, one from Georgia, a grandfather flew with his granddaughter from London and another woman flew from California. So when we build the Edelman Visitors Center and Museum we have no doubt that people are going to come from all around the planet.”

Dr. Lacovara says the fossil park offers the public a chance to ask questions about the world and to receive and process that information in a rational way and it will for years to come.

“This is a 65-acre property. If we were to excavate here five days a week, it takes us 10 years to process an acre. So, we have about 650 years of work here,” he said.

That’s barely a fraction of how long ago life ended for so many creatures here that’s giving new life to a world of discovery.