Note: I apologize in advance if I’m off a few million years on the dates above.
I’m glad you made it. I mentioned on Monday that I had taken a weekend to visit my parents in upstate New York. I try to visit at least twice a year, once in the summer and once for xmas when the whole family has been conveniently rounded up to maximize my catch-up time. Between the family, food, and pleasant environs, I really enjoy going “home.” I’ve been fortunate enough throughout my life to have always lived around nature. Growing up in the Binghamton area, we had a stretch of woods, complete with a babbling brook which cut a shallow, easily traversed gorge in my backyard. When my parents moved to central New York after I had graduated high school, the new locale seemingly one-upped the old, boasting its own waterways and subsequent gorges. Even Alfred University, my alma mater was nestled in a picturesque valley.
My parents live in central New York, specifically the Finger Lakes region, named for the long, parallel lakes that splay across it like a hand. As you drive along the lakes, what you notice immediately are all the vineyards that line them—pretty much one after another. Being large bodies of water, the lakes retain heat from the summer, causing the winter frosts to arrive much later in the valleys. This creates a unique climate that facilitates grape-growing. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the best time to go swimming (if you’re a wimp, like me) is in the fall, while the lakes still cling to their peak summer heat.
The Finger Lakes were formed during the series of ice ages that covered most of North America with glaciers. The slow-moving walls of ice would advance and retreat, over time carving the Earth with deep channels that then filled with water. From the south, flow a network of inlets which over the years have done their own share of carving, forming the expansive gorges in Ithaca and Watkins Glen. While bearing witness to the effects of thousands of years of water erosion on geologic strata is interesting in and of itself, it also creates the sort of conditions that make paleontologists drool. The erosion exposes fossils.
When you want to study the deeper layers of Earth’s crust, digging from the top down just isn’t feasible. Not with today’s science budgets anyway. So paleontologists seek out areas that have been cut away by nature. Think of it as getting a cross-section of the Earth—better yet, a timeline of geologic history. It’s even better when you can catch nature in the act, as is the example we find on Skaneateles Lake. A short boat ride (the cliffs are too sheer to reach it any other way) brings you to Staghorn Point, named for it’s primary inhabitants, and subject of today’s comic: Horn Coral.
The now extinct order of Rugosa coral were plentiful in the shallow, Permian seas that covered much of North America before the glaciers came. You can find their fossils all over the place, from New York to Kansas. The coral were believed to have long tendrils, which pulled food from the water. The polyps (the body of the coral) secreted a calcium carbonate, one of the key ingredients of limestone, which encased their soft bodies in hard, stone shells. As the coral grew, it would extend upwards, adding segments to the shell one after the other, as if it were building a chimney. Though the specimens I found in Skaneateles Lake were much smaller, they could grow up to a meter long.
What they lack in size is made up for in numbers. The stuff is literally falling out of the walls as the lapping waves wear away the soft shale surrounding the fossilized coral. They grew in large numbers over millions of years, and a walking on the tiny beach, you find yourself looking at them all piled in a petrified heap. It’s an ancient grave of sea life, and a testament to New York’s underwater beginnings. The fossils are embedded in the rock in various stages of erosion, which slowly reveals the coral, poking out of the smoothed rock, and also the impressions left when a fossil finally breaks free. They then roll into the lake where they can be plucked by the bucketful.
So last weekend, my father, Audrey, and I took a trip to the spot and collected a pretty good selection of fossils that we brought back here to NYC. But it was probably only an eighth of what we had originally picked up. See, while you’re down there, you just sort of grab everything you can find, and as tradition with trips to the point, the mediocre samples are tossed back into the lake in favor of the nicer ones upon returning home. This happens at least once a year, every year since 2001. You go down, grab a bunch of fossils, and toss most of them back in later. In a way, we’re creating a sort of half-assed Staghorn Point in my parents’ section of the lake. Pretty soon, when you can’t be bothered to take the boat ride, you can direct people to the beachfront, and the cycle will begin anew.
Below are some photos of the trip and some of the nicer finds. The coral are on average 2-4cm in diameter and 6-10cm long. I wish the glass studio I used to work at wasn’t closed. I’d love to cut and polish some cross sections. Stay tuned!
This post was brought to you by Ruthenium(Ru).
After writing this, I realized it needs three more panels. Seriously. You’ll thank me later when I retcon them in.
Want to learn more? Go here for additional information about Devonian period fossils.