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Two Columbus State University students have discovered a horde of 85 million-year-old marine and terrestrial fossils in east central Alabama, including feathers dating back to the last era of the dinosaur age.
The fossils were discovered by Sean Bingham, 33, and Terrell Knight, 28, while engaged in undergraduate research at a small research outcrop they unearthed.
The CSU seniors presented their findings to more than 1,000 international geoscientists during a joint meeting of the northeastern and southern sections of the Geological Society of America March 25-27 in Virginia.
‘Their discovery is considered significant in the paleontology community for many reasons, including the fact that the feathers are preserved in shale, a geological term for a form of sedimentary rock,’ said David Schwimmer, professor of paleontology and environmental geology at CSU.
Even though a dinosaur feather from this same time span was found in New Jersey in 1996, it was conserved in amber, not shale. The difference – and significance – between the fossils is that because amber securely encloses a fossil, preservation is almost guaranteed. Equivalent to the size of a fingernail, the dinosaur fossils faced a greater challenge of exposure from nature because the feathers are conserved on the surface of the shale.
‘For one thing, it is significant because it is there,’ Bingham said. ‘But more importantly, the preservation that was required for this fossil feather to have remained there for almost 85 million years is pretty incredible.’
After the first feather was discovered a few months ago, Schwimmer consulted colleagues at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s annual October conference in Minnesota for verification of the feather fossil. But questions persisted over whether the feather came from a 85-million-year-old bird or a non-flying feathered dinosaur.
Besides the feathers, Bingham and Knight also have found an unusual mix of fossils from saltwater, terrestrial and fresh water habitats including plants, a shark tooth, crabs, insects and seeds. The odd assemblage supports the geological hypothesis that the site was once right at the shoreline.
‘Finding all that in one layer is pretty incredible,’ Knight said. ‘But we do not yet know what all these fossils were doing there together.’
What they do know is, as a result of their findings, the Alabama site is a ‘lagerstatte’ – a German word that is borrowed by scientists to describe places of unique fossil preservation. Lagerstatten are rare localities noted either for the diversity of fossils or the quality of preservation. Only a few hundred are scattered through the Earth’s geologic record; yet they offer a window into the earth’s past.
Schwimmer and the students believe the one-and-a-half foot thick outcrop may yield other significant fossils.
‘It’s exciting because we are working in a pioneer type of situation,’ Knight said. ‘There have not been a lot of things studied in this region prior to the last few decades.’
Bingham and Knight are only two of the CSU presenters at the March geology conference. Also presenting their own research are Schwimmer and geology professor Tom Hanley.
Contact: David Schwimmer, 569-3028: E-mail: schwimmer_david@ColumbusState.edu