Dig it: New Jersey home to future fossil park

It could have been turned into anything.

When Inversand Mining Co. decided to sell its greensand mining property in southern New Jersey, many options were considered by the town located near Philadelphia, such as a strip mall or a residential area.

The economic downturn got in the way.

“Because of the economic conditions, there haven’t been any developers interested,” said Alan Davis, president of Inversand.

Greensand is a product used for water filtration in farming. The company has a new product, GreensandPlus from Brazil, and no longer has the need to mine for its manganese greensand product in Mantua.

Unfortunate circumstances yielded something good for science: That mine sits on millions of years’ worth of history.

“We’re a one-horse town and we have a dinosaur park in our backyard,” said Mayor Pete Scirrotto of Mantua Township. Mantua has a population of about 16,000.

Fossils from the Cretaceous period are buried within the soil of the small town. The Cretaceous period began more than 145 million years ago.

“We may have a window in this pit behind a Lowe’s in suburban New Jersey in this pivotal calamitous moment that shaped the Earth as we know it,” said Ken Lacovara, associate professor of paleontology and geology at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Dinosaurs were wiped out in a geological instant 65 million years ago when an asteroid hit around the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. An impact layer as a result of that asteroid can be spotted in about 300 locations around the world, but significant fossils have never been found in that layer, he said.

Lacovara’s research group is testing the hypothesis that this quarry could be that moment in geological history.

“We know we have a death assemblage. We know we have some impact indicators,” he said. “Now we have to make sure we tie the two together so that we can really say it happened at the same moment. If that’s the case, then we have a fossil layer that is not only locally important, but really important for the history of the entire Earth.”

This location is not only a site for scientific discovery, it’s an opportunity to increase excitement for the field of science in education.

“Anybody that goes to this pit that tries a little bit finds a 65 million year old fossil with their own hands that they get to take home,” Lacovara said. “For a kid I think that’s a transformational experience.”

The developers hope to turn the current 65 acres of land into a park that could include a prep lab, a welcome center and an education center, said Michelle Bruner, economic development coordinator for Mantua Township.

Deputy Mayor Sharon Lawrence, a sixth grade teacher, frequently takes her students there to learn about dinosaur bones in hopes of sparking interest in science.

“STEM education is probably one of the most important things. Get them interested in science, technology, engineering and math,” she said. “What better thing than to take them to a dinosaur pit?”

Before the park can move ahead to redevelop the infrastructure, funding is needed. The product team hopes to remove the burden on local taxpayers by obtaining funding from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

“It won’t really cost the taxpayers money – any money. We’re trying to do it all ‘Green Acres,’ preserve all that ground there,” Scirrotto said.

The Green Acres Program is an initiative of the New Jersey state government to preserve land and develop parks, according to the department’s website.

“If we’re successful in getting those acquisition funds, then I would say at least within the next two or three years the township could possibly own this project site working with Drexel on the educational end and we could be developing the first ever fossil park at this site,” Bruner said.

Lacovara’s team will continue excavate in the bone bed for their research and the community is invited to join the township for dig day events in the meantime.

“There are innumerable shopping malls, strip malls, rental storage places, housing developments all over the place,” Davis said. “But, the fossil park – it’s not like you can go anywhere in South Jersey, or New Jersey, or even the Northeast area and have access to a live fossil dig. Preserving it has value.”

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