Monday, July 15, 2013

Fossil Hunters

The Gatun Formation.

Fossil hunters see things differently from the rest of us. Where we see shells, they see teeth. Where we see wood, they see bone. This special skill was apparent during a trip to the Gatun Formation, one of the richest marine fossil sites on Earth.

As I looked around, I saw a lot of fossils, but to my untrained eye they looked like so many shells on the beach. Shark teeth are different, we were told. They were darker and shinier. We’d know them when we saw them, they said. So I looked. I got down low, scanning the ground for something that looked different. For a while, nothing. Then I saw it. A shiny brown tooth sitting on a small mound of dirt among thousands of white turritella shells, among the most abundant of fossils. Eureka!

My shark tooth find. Photo: Rob Hoffman

I brought my find to graduate student Catalina Pimiento, whose research is on the giant Megalodon sharks that once roamed the oceans here. She has a special knack for identifying shark teeth, Bruce MacFadden says, and she quickly identified my find as a lemon shark, whose ancestors are common in the oceans off North and South America today.

Now I was on a roll. I knew what I was looking for. I was sure I would find more. Or not. I searched the ground for an hour without finding another tooth.

Meanwhile, postdoctoral researcher Jorge Velez had his own find on the other side of the Gatun site. Something that looked for all the world like a piece of scrap wood turned out to be a vertebrae from a prehistoric marlin. With great care, Jorge excavated his find, first stabilizing it with glue, then digging it out with a screwdriver and a hammer. Once freed from the surrounding rock, Jorge carefully wrapped it in toilet paper for transport back to the lab.

Post doctoral researcher Jorge Velez excavates a vertebrae from an ancient marlin species. Photo: Jeff Gage

Bruce MacFadden, Jorge Velez and Catalina Pimiento are fossil hunters. They see things where the rest of us don't.

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