Originally posted on DrexelNow.
In the course of a single day, more than a thousand residents and visitors to southern New Jersey will dig into – literally – the process of paleontology and discovery at Mantua Township’s Community Fossil Dig Day. They will have the opportunity to dig their own fossils and to learn from the Drexel University paleontologist and students who conduct globally significant scientific research at the site at the sold-out event on Sept. 27 – the third annual event and the biggest yet.
“Big” is nothing new for Kenneth Lacovara, PhD, the on-site paleontologist at the Mantua Township, N.J. Inversand fossil dig site. Lacovara, an associate professor in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences, made international headlines earlier this month with the announcement of the new supermassive dinosaur species Dreadnoughtus schrani that he and collaborators unearthed in Argentina between 2005 and 2009.
Closer to home, Lacovara and Drexel students are making equally exciting discoveries as they dig fossils year-round at Inversand.
“Dinosaur paleontology began in New Jersey,” Lacovara said. “The world’s first discovered dinosaur was in Haddonfield, N.J. and was studied at what is now the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.”
Mantua Township’s Inversand Quarry has been a fossil dig for generations of scientists continuously since 1926, when mining operations and paleontological research by Academy scientists both began there. Today, the Inversand quarry is the last remaining marl pit on the East Coast that remains an active mining operation for manganese greensand – continuously pumping water from what would otherwise be a lake, in the process keeping the fossil layer exposed and available for ongoing discovery.
“This is the best site for Cretaceous-age fossil exposures east of the Mississippi River,” Lacovara said. “Here we find exquisite fossils of marine animals that lived here when this was a shallow coastal environment, including mosasaurs, which were essentially giant marine Komodo dragons, sea turtles, crocodiles and more.”
Even more remarkable, in recent years Lacovara and Drexel students have been carefully documenting the evidence of a mass die-off of the animals that once lived here in pursuit of a provocative question: Is this fossil bonebed linked to the extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago?
“We don’t know,” said Lacovara, “but that is the hypothesis that we are testing by examining the fossils, the sediments and the chemistry.” If this idea is validated by the evidence, which could take years, Lacovara noted, the Inversand Quarry could be a window into this pivotal moment in time like no other.
Community Fossil Dig Day
For the community, having such a rich fossil site within 20 minutes of Philadelphia and conveniently accessible behind a New Jersey shopping plaza is a rare and special opportunity. Mantua Township officials and the Inversand Company, which owns and operates the site, have teamed up with Lacovara to share the scientific discovery process with the community. The annual Community Fossil Dig Day began in October 2012 through this partnership.
On Dig Day, attendees of all ages learn about the site’s history and scientific importance, then observe the live excavation area where Drexel students are unearthing scientifically significant, articulated vertebrate fossils such as sea turtles and marine reptiles and crocodiles. Next, attendees get to dig into the muddy, wet sand in their own designated digging areas. Attendees often find marine animal remains from 65 million years ago, including fossilized shark teeth, shark feces and clams – and in most cases they can take home what they find.
“I still have goosebumps thinking of what I saw there,” one resident wrote after the first Community Dig Day, which drew explorers from the local community and from as far as New York and Maryland. “Thank you for the experience of a lifetime.”
Following Lacovara’s recent Dreadnoughtus dinosaur announcement, the 2014 Dig Day on Sept. 27 will also feature a special celebration of Dreadnoughtus and the extraordinary excitement of a major dinosaur discovery made by South Jersey’s own on-site paleontologist at Inversand.
Also on hand to help on Saturday will be volunteers from the Delaware Valley Paleontological Society, the Delaware Valley Earth Science Society, Rowan College at Gloucester County, Rowan University and the University of Pennsylvania. Additionally, dozens of community volunteers will be on-site.
High Demand and Hope for Preservation
The popularity of Dig Day continues to grow, according to Michelle Bruner, Mantua Township Economic Development Coordinator, a primary organizer of the event. This year, the 1,000 registration spaces for the event were filled within two and a half days of opening. More than 400 are on the waiting list and will get priority registration next year.
“We’ve had over 5,000 guests in the three years of this event,” Bruner said. “The response has been overwhelming.”
In addition to the annual Community Dig Day, the Township and Lacovara offer educational opportunities for schools from across the region at Inversand, including hosting school field trips with hands-on science workshops led by Drexel students, as well as offering site tours for various civic organizations.
These types of educational opportunities are only the beginning. The team of partners behind Dig Day is working with other supporters in Gloucester County toward a long-term vision of preserving Inversand as a fossil heritage park in perpetuity. The Township has applied for funding through the New Jersey Green Acres program and continues to raise private donations toward acquiring the land for preservation and development of a fossil park and paleontological education center supporting STEM education.