Paleo group explores historical locations
by Dana Geary
Several paleo students went with my daughters and me for a week of fossil collecting in upstate New York. We visited the Paleontological Research Institution’s Museum of the Earth, which we highly recommend to anyone traveling near Ithaca. PRI Director Warren Allmon and Education Director Rob Ross both accompanied us in the field to see and collect from several classic Devonian Hamilton Group sites.
We were especially fortunate to have Tom Whiteley as our guide for two days. Tom is a highly regarded trilobite specialist and the author of Trilobites of New York. We visited the Upper Ordovician Beecher Beds, north of Rome, NY. This outcrop was originally discovered in 1892, and is well known for its exceptional trilobites with soft tissues exquisitely preserved by pyrite replacement. Charles Beecher of Yale University published two papers in 1893 describing trilobite limbs and a trilobite larval form from this site. Unfortunately, Beecher died unexpectedly in 1904 and the exact whereabouts of this important site were lost. Tom Whiteley searched indefatigably for the site for many years until finally rediscovering it in 1984.
Tom also accompanied our group to the Walcott-Rust Quarry near Trenton Falls, NY. This Upper Ordovician locality is also well known for its diverse and well-preserved trilobites. The locality was discovered in 1870 by 20-year old Charles D. Walcott.
Walcott’s careful thin-sectioning of specimens from this quarry led to some of the very first identifications of trilobite soft parts, including gills, legs, and antennae. Walcott sold his specimens from this quarry to the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. Louis Agassiz, the MCZ’s director, later convinced Walcott to pursue a career in paleontology (leading eventually to the discovery of the Burgess Shale). Tom Whiteley learned about the Walcott-Rust quarry while examining Walcott’s specimens at the MCZ. One hundred years after the quarry was discovered, Tom reopened the site, which continues to yield important finds.
Aside from the great fossils, we really appreciated the historical aspects of the sites we visited.
Special thanks to those who made this trip possible through their donations to the Field Experience Fund.
Originally published in The Outcrop for 2008, UW-Madison Department of Geology and Geophysics, p. 14.