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Kids like you can dig for fossils at this site in New Jersey.

CHRISTIAN HANSEN/The New York Times/Redux

STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: ESS1.C

CCSS: Writing: 2

TEKS: Science: 3.3A, 4.3A, 5.3A, 6.3A; ELA: 3.7B, 4.7B, 5.7B, 6.6B

Welcome to Fossil Park

At this New Jersey mud pit, you can dig up rare fossils from the days of the dinosaurs  

Last June, 6-year-old Arya Valcarcel and her 12-year-old brother, Manuel, crouched shoulder to shoulder, sifting through mud. Suddenly, Arya spotted what looked like a pointy rock. But it wasn’t a rock at all. It was a 65-million-year-old shark tooth!

The siblings were at the Jean & Ric Edelman Fossil Park at Rowan University. That’s a 65-acre pit in New Jersey where people can help scientists hunt for fossils. The area is full of the remains of prehistoric animals, from armored crocodiles to lizards as long as school buses. Those creatures lived during the Cretaceous period, the heyday of the dinosaurs (see From Dinosaurs to Today).

Arya Valcarcel and her brother Manuel sat together sifting through mud last June. Arya is 6. Manuel is 12. Suddenly, Arya spotted something. It looked like a pointy rock. But it wasn’t a rock at all. It was a 65-million-year-old shark tooth!

The pair were at Jean & Ric Edelman Fossil Park. It’s part of Rowan University in New Jersey. The park is a 65-acre pit. People can visit to help scientists hunt for fossils. The area is full of the remains of ancient animals. That includes armored crocodiles. There are lizards as long as school buses too. Those creatures lived during the Cretaceous period. That was a time when many dinosaurs lived (see From Dinosaurs to Today).

COURTESY OF ROWAN UNIVERSITY/©2015 CRAIG TERRY 

Paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara holds a mosasaur bone.

Then, about 66 million years ago, something happened that changed the planet forever. An asteroid bigger than Mount Everest smashed into Earth. Many scientists think the event wiped out three-quarters of the world’s species, including dinosaurs.

Kenneth Lacovara is a paleontologist at Rowan University and the head of Fossil Park. He thinks some of the park’s fossils belonged to animals that died after the asteroid hit. Lacovara hopes the remains can reveal clues about the dinosaurs’ last days. 

Something happened about 66 million years ago. It changed the planet forever. An asteroid struck Earth. The space rock was bigger than Mount Everest. Many scientists think the event wiped out three-quarters of the world’s species. That includes the dinosaurs.

Kenneth Lacovara is a paleontologist. He works at Rowan University. And he’s the head of Fossil Park. He thinks some of the park’s fossils belonged to animals that died after the asteroid hit. Lacovara hopes they can reveal clues about the dinosaurs’ last days.

Buried Underwater

If you could travel millions of years back in time, the area that’s now Fossil Park would be unrecognizable. It wasn’t a mud pit surrounded by trees. It was a shallow sea full of creatures, from tiny snails to enormous sharks.

When those animals died, they sank to the bottom of the sea. Their bodies were quickly buried by sediments like sand and silt. Over time, minerals seeped into their bones, turning them into fossils (see How Fossils Form).

Imagine you could travel millions of years back in time. The area that’s now Fossil Park would look very different. It wasn’t a mud pit circled by trees. It was a shallow sea. It was full of creatures. They included tiny snails and enormous sharks.

Those animals died. They sank to the bottom of the sea. Sediments like sand and silt quickly buried the bodies. Minerals seeped into their bones over time. That turned them into fossils (see How Fossils Form).

MARK GARLICK/SCIENCE SOURCE/Science Source (mosasaur); Alessandra Potenza for Scholastic (fossilized tooth)

Giant marine lizards called mosasaurs lived in the sea that covered Fossil Park. Their teeth can be found at the site today.

Most animals don’t become fossils after they die. Their bodies decay or are eaten by other animals before they can be buried and preserved. “Much less than 1 percent of all things that have ever lived are recorded as fossils,” says Gregory Wilson, a paleontologist at the University of Washington.

That’s why Fossil Park is so special. The pit was a mining site from 1926 to 2015. As miners turned up fossils, the site drew the interest of scientists. The remains can help paint a vivid picture of prehistoric life.

Most animals don’t become fossils after they die. Their bodies decay. Or they’re eaten by other animals. That happens before they can be buried. “Much less than 1 percent of all things that have ever lived are recorded as fossils,” says Gregory Wilson. He’s a paleontologist at the University of Washington.

That’s why Fossil Park is so special. The pit was a mining site from 1926 to 2015. Miners dug up fossils. That drew scientists to the site. The remains can help paint a picture of life long ago.  

Asteroid Crash

Some of the fossils at Fossil Park could even shed light on one of Earth’s most catastrophic events: the asteroid that hit the planet at the end of the Cretacious period. Scientists think the space rock was about 10 kilometers (6 miles) wide. The enormous blast likely caused powerful earthquakes, giant waves, and deadly wildfires. Dust from the impact and ash from the fires blocked sunlight. For months, the world was shrouded in darkness.

Many experts think the asteroid and its aftermath caused a mass extinction. But scientists have never found a collection of fossils from animals that died after the asteroid hit. Those remains could help paleontologists better understand how the animals died.

Some remains at Fossil Park could even shed light on the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. Scientists think the space rock was about 10 kilometers (6 miles) wide. Its crash likely caused strong earthquakes. It also created giant waves and deadly wildfires. Dust from the blast and ash from the fires blocked sunlight. The world was dark for months.

Many scientists think the asteroid caused a mass extinction. But they haven’t found a large group of animal fossils from the time after the asteroid hit. Those remains could help scientists better learn how they died.

JAMES THEW/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO 

The asteroid that hit Earth about 66 million years ago was 6 miles wide.

Lacovara thinks some of those remains are at Fossil Park. He points to several clues. The fossils are clustered together. That suggests the animals died suddenly and at the same time. Lacovara says he’s also found a metal called iridium (ih-RIH-dee-uhm) in the sand surrounding the fossils. This metal is very rare on Earth, but asteroids have a lot of it. When the asteroid collided with the planet, iridium rained down from the sky. Scientists have found the metal in soil around the world dating to the collision.

Lacovara and his team are carefully analyzing the fossils. “It’s like investigating a murder scene,” he says.

Lacovara thinks some of those remains are at Fossil Park. He points to several clues. The fossils are clumped together. That means the animals likely died suddenly. And they likely died at the same time. Lacovara says he’s also found a metal in the sand around the fossils. It’s called iridium (ih-RIH-dee-uhm). This metal is very rare on Earth. But asteroids have a lot of it. Iridium fell from the sky when the asteroid hit Earth. Scientists have found the metal in soil around the world. It marks the time of the crash.

Lacovara and his team are carefully studying the fossils. “It’s like investigating a murder scene,” he says.

Courtesy of Aline M. Ghilardi/http:\\www.bonecollectors.org (turtle); Alessandra Potenza for Scholastic (fossilized shell)

This 2-foot turtle shell found at Fossil Park belonged to a prehistoric sea turtle.

Dig Days

Twice a year, Rowan University invites the public to the park to dig for fossils. The event is very popular. All 2,000 tickets usually sell out within 20 minutes!

Arya found her shark tooth during one of these Dig Days. Usually, kids are allowed to keep what they find at Fossil Park. But Arya’s tooth belonged to a rare prehistoric shark that could grow up to 2.4 meters (8 feet) long. Rowan University kept the tooth for research and gave Arya a 3-D printed copy of it. She and Manuel were equally excited. 

“I’ve never seen a kid leave that place without a smile on their face,” Lacovara says. “They just love it.”

Rowan University invites the public to the park twice a year. Visitors get to dig for fossils. The event is very popular. All 2,000 tickets usually sell out within 20 minutes!

Arya found her shark tooth during one of these Dig Days. Usually, kids get to keep what they find at Fossil Park. But Arya’s tooth belonged to a rare prehistoric shark. The shark could grow up to 2.4 meters (8 feet) long. Rowan University kept the tooth for research. The university gave Arya a plastic copy of it. She and Manuel were both excited.

“I’ve never seen a kid leave that place without a smile on their face,” Lacovara says. “They just love it.” 

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