Near St. Clair, PA

Scouting Trip for Fossil Ferns

Carboniferous - Pennsylvanian (~300 m.y.o.)

December 2009




Here is the abandoned strip mine.  Notice I tower over most trees, as all of the land has been recently stripped of coal.
Here is the abandoned strip mine that exposes the Llewellyn Formation, which is Pennsylvanian in age.

Scouting Trip for Fossil Ferns



Toward the end of 2009 I had some free time to fossil hunt. I also wanted to switch it up a bit, so I decided to try a fossil site that was new to me. It was a fossil fern site. Although fossil ferns are ranked #1 on my top 10 list of least favorite fossils, I figured I should at least try and find some of those famous white ferns on black shale from central PA.

The plan was simple; drive across the state and try to find some. Since it was a long haul from home, I decided I should overnight it. On the first day, I would find and scout out the place before darkness fell. I would then make a game plan based on my findings for the next day of hunting.

So, on the first day, I drove and drove and drove. As strip mines began appearing from horizon to horizon, I knew I was getting close. When I arrived near the town, the whole area became a vast strip mine, no trees over 30 feet could be seen. For miles and miles all land had been dug up and stripped of its precious coal.

Everything looked the same; the tale-tale black shell was exposed everywhere. "Where is the exact site where the fern-bearing layer is exposed?" I asked. It took an hour or so of driving around to find it. Darkness was already approaching when I parked my car (winter solstice makes for short days), and I still had to hike through some old strip mine trails. I grabbed my collecting gear, a flashlight, and hiked down a path full of slick frozen puddles, until finally the horizon opened up, and a vast abandoned strip mine, now used as quad trails, lay in front of me.

It was overwhelming. Where would I start to scout for a decent fern layer? Should I go left, right, or straight? Since darkness was approaching, I decided to stay in the immediate vicinity. Soon I found outcroppings of the famous white ferns. Unfortunately, the ferns were packed so tightly together that a decent specimen was hard to find. Ferns were on top of ferns, which were on top of other ferns. This made the actual ferns barely recognizable, it just looked like white splatters on the rocks.

I quickly scouted the immediate area picking up samples here and there, and determining where the best outcropping for tomorrow's fossil siege would be. As darkness fell, I got out my flashlight and headed back through the woods to the car.

The next day, I awoke at a nearby hotel to find a thick blanket of snow covering everything!!! Foiled!!! I packed up and headed home, vowing to return another day.



The ground is littered with fossil fern fragments.  One literally walks on them.
The gorund is littered with fossil fern fragments. One literally walks on them.


The fragile shale quickly weathers, causing tiny fragments of ferns to litter the ground
The fragile shale quickly weathers, causing tiny fragments of ferns to litter the ground


Often there are so many fossil ferns, individual ones cannot be seen.  The ferns create
white smudges across the shale.
Often there are so many fossil ferns, individual ones cannot be seen. The ferns create white smudges across the shale.








Here are some of the samples I grabbed before it got too dark to see:

st. clair fossil fern plate
This plate has numerous Alethopteris (Seed Fern) fragments, and two fragments of Neuroptris toward the top center.



This small plate shows some kind of bark or branch surrounded by numerous Alethopteris (Seed Fern) fragments.



This is a close up of a fragment of an Alethopteris frond.





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