Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Mystery at the American Museum solved


Press Release
December 6, 2017

87-Year-Old Fossil Mystery Solved

In the world of paleontology, mysteries abound. Apart from questions about their makers, sometimes fossils create their own mysteries after they are collected. The book, “Footprints in Stone: Fossil Traces of Coal-Age Tetrapods,” by Ronald J. Buta and David C. Kopaska-Merkel, helped solve a mystery at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Carl Mehling had been working to identify some unknown specimens from an unlabeled crate. His only clue was the newspaper used to cushion the specimens. He explained in an email to Buta and Kopaska-Merkel on October 11, 2017:

I have to thank you guys for something unexpected. I got a copy of Footprints in Stone about a month ago. In the Intro, I read that G.G. Simpson collected trackways down there in January 1930. I was immediately thrilled because this promised to help solve a mystery I first became aware of in 2005.”

The newspapers were from the time of initial discovery, which inspired Mehling to continue digging. He found documentation that proved at least three of the specimens were associated with the Galloway No. 11 underground coal mine near Carbon Hill, Alabama – the location in Buta and Kopaska-Merkel’s book.

In the 1920s, workers at the Galloway No. 11 Mine reported seeing fossil animal footprints (trace fossils) preserved in the rock layers above the coal seam they were mining.
The animals that left the footprints were a mystery because no skeletal remains were found, making it difficult to know what they might have looked like. Nevertheless, the discovery was considered significant enough that the mining company contacted not only professionals in Alabama, but also the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, attracting the attention of acting AMNH curator George Gaylord Simpson (1902-1984). Simpson selected 14 large slabs of tracks, now thought to be 310-315 million years old, to be shipped to New York.

Alabama trace fossils received little study until 1999, when tracks were re-discovered by amateur fossil collectors in the spoil piles of an active surface coal mine, the Union Chapel Mine, near Jasper, Alabama, 23 miles east of Carbon Hill. Renewed interest in the ancient Walker County footprints brought them back to the forefront of Alabama paleontology. This led to the publication of “Footprints in Stone: Fossil Traces of Coal-Age Tetrapods” by Buta and Kopaska-Merkel. The book tells the story of the discovery of the site of fossil tracks at the Union Chapel Mine and its preservation by the State of Alabama as the Steven C. Minkin Paleozoic Footprint site. The book also recounts the discovery in 2011 of a second prolific fossil trackway site, the Crescent Valley Mine, located only a quarter of a mile from the former entrance to the Galloway No. 11 Mine.

Mehling closed his email:

I am absolutely thrilled to have reunited these specimens with their data. And I love the serendipitous path that took me there.”
The retrieval of Simpson's slabs after so many years is a thrilling development in the history of fossil collecting in Alabama. The Simpson slabs are an important part of Alabama's heritage, and their re-discovery provides a remarkable story of paleontological sleuthing.

Footprints in Stone: Fossil Traces of Coal-Age Tetrapods, by Ronald J. Buta and David C. Kopaska-Merkel, is available through the University of Alabama Press.

For more information:

Dr. Ronald J. Buta
Professor of Astronomy
Department of Physics and Astronomy
University of Alabama
Box 870324
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
email: rbuta@ua.edu
cell phone number: 205-310-9062

Dr. David C. Kopaska-Merkel
Section Chief, Petroleum Systems and Technology
Geological Survey of Alabama
Box 869999
Tuscaloosa, AL 35486-6999
205-247-3695
email: davidkm@gsa.state.al.us

Carl Mehling
Senior Museum Specialist
Fossil Amphibian, Reptile, and Bird Collections
Division of Paleontology
American Museum of Natural History
200 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
email: cosm@amnh.org

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