Local Fossil Sites

Dinosaurs roamed the land we now inhabit. Some museums and sites in the state offer us a glimpse into that past.

by Vince Farinaccio

The vestiges of dinosaurs who roamed the land that is now New Jersey is fairly far-reaching, and anyone wishing to tour the sites that offer a glimpse into the past before the summer reaches its conclusion have a number of choices.

In Haddonfield, the site where the first nearly complete dinosaur skeleton was unearthed, a sculpture of a Hadrosaurus sits in the town commemorating the 19th century discovery. Christened “Haddy,” the sculpture also serves as a reminder of exactly who our state dinosaur is. But if it’s the real thing you’re interested in, several spots further north are in order.

According to NJ Monthly, the Morris Museum is a “Smithsonian-affiliated museum in Morristown [which] houses a paleontology collection that includes finds like dinosaur bones and an egg from the region.” The magazine also identifies the Rutgers Geology Museum in New Brunswick as “home to a dinosaur trackway and a fully articulated mastodon skeleton that was found in Salem County.”

The website of Trenton’s New Jersey State Museum states that visitors are presented with “unique fossil stories that offer intriguing clues about our ever-changing planet, how life on Earth has evolved and adapted… or gone extinct.” The museum offers an opportunity to see New Jersey’s Dryptosaurus, a carnivorous dinosaur, “reconstructed and displayed for the first time ever” and a life-sized cast of the Hadrosauru as well as a Mosasaurus maximus, described as “a 50-foot marine reptile discovered in southern New Jersey.” All are on long-term view on the second floor of the museum’s main building.

Anyone not in any hurry can wait until next spring when the Jean and Ric Edelman Fossil Park of Rowan University opens to the public in May. According to the Rowan University website, the museum is “set into a 65-acre landscape” in Mantua Township that will perch above what was once a marl quarry “where, within its muddy depths, 66-million-year-old marine and terrestrial fossils record the last moments of the dinosaur world.”

The website reports that the museum “will attract an estimated 200,000 or more guests per year” and that “the project embraces sustainability, preservation and site-specific design with high-tech, interactive galleries and exhibits.”

Although the museum’s opening is still nine months away, research in the quarry, under the supervision of Founding Dean of Rowan’s School of Earth and Environment and Fossil Park Director Dr. Kenneth Lacovara, has been ongoing for the past decade.

In 2016, a New York Times article reported that the Mantua Township quarry pit “was once the sea bottom, and one particular layer about 40 feet beneath the surface contains a bounty of fossils.” Calling the layer “mass death assemblage,” Lacovara told the newspaper that “he believes it may be the only known collection of animal remains that dates from the mass extinction itself.”

The article noted that the graduate students cataloging the fossils hadn’t been the only visitors to the site for the past several years. “Once a year for the past four years,” the newspaper reported, “the quarry has been opened to the public, and citizen paleontologists have come in droves—about 1,500 for the most recent community event last fall.” The visitors were allowed to keep the fossils they found.

While there’s plenty of evidence of clams, oysters, turtles and even crocodiles, the more exotic finds have included, according to the New York Times, “the occasional mosasaur, a ferocious aquatic lizard with two long teeth at the back of its throat that pointed toward its gullet, ensuring that any prey it swallowed would never struggle out.”

Of historical note is how the former marl quarry preserved the remains. The New York Times noted, “here the skeletons of the larger creatures remain largely intact. That suggests they all died at the same time and then settled gently on the sea bottom.”

Jersey Reflections