"Celebrating the Richness of Paleontology through Fossil Hunting"

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"Celebrating the Richness of Paleontology through Fossil Hunting"

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Fossil Hunting for Ferns in Central PA.

St. Clair Fossil Trip

Fossil Fern Hunting in Central PA

Carboniferous - Pennsylvanian (~300 - 308 m.y.o.)

April 2011


St. Clair fern pit

St. Clair fern pit

YOUTUBE VIDEO: This video shows how to extract a large fossil fern plate, that hopefully has ferns on it!

This video shows how to extract a large fossil fern plate, that hopefully has ferns on it!

Spring has arrived, and so has the fossil collecting season! It's time to build those castles in the sky! What rare discoveries will be made? Will I find a new dinosaur species, a long lost tetrapod that will re-write evolution, or a giant trilobite mass mortality plate? Oh how wonderful it is to dream, to have illusions of grandeur.

The first planned trip of 2011 was a modest one. I was to head back to St. Clair. The mission was to find a better fern plate than what was found last trip. I knew I may be hunting unicorns, but that's what makes fossil hunting fun. If nice fossils were easy to find, it would be boring!

Every time I have driven to this fern site, I noticed arrays of trailers unloading quads and dirt bikes. The quad paths through the abandoned mines must be extensive. They also run through the fern pit. So, I figured, instead of parking and huffing it to the fern site, I would try to drive. How difficult could it be? Soon my SUV (without off road tires) and I were bouncing through the quad paths. Four thoughts were going through my mind as I wandered the quad paths: "Don't get stuck in the mud," "Don't hit bottom," "Don't pop a tire," and "Don't break an axel!" Eventually I arrived at the fern pit. I realized it would have been faster if I walked in. However, I would not have hike the ferns out of the pit!

Once there, I scanned the area, looking for a good spot to find a potential famous white fern plate. Once a spot was found, I hunkered down and got ready to spend a couple hours digging out a big slab. It's all or nothing for me, slabs fewer than 2 feet don't count!

A few hours later (that's including much time spent procrastinating) the slab was ready to be lifted. Would it be a large frond with dozens of fern specimens all bright white? Or worst case, would it be an empty slab? Once lifted, it wasn't quite worse case, but it did not contain ferns. Instead, there was a large tree branch (maybe Cordaites?) running dead center down the plate. Unfortunately, when a large branch like this runs across the shale, it usually disrupts the rest of the matrix. I did not find my unicorn. If only I dug two foot to the right, I may have found it!

After that disappointment, I spent the little energy I had left sorting smaller debris, searching for less common specimens.

Below are Sample fossils from the trip:

This is the plate with the fossil tree branch section.

This is the plate with the fossil tree branch section.

Here is a closer view of the fossil tree branch section.

This is the foilage (a leaf) of a Lepidodendron tree.

Here is a closer view, enhanced. The fossil is poorly preserved.

This is a sphenophyllum stem fragment. Instead of seeing the sprawled out leaf, this appears to be a side view.

Here is a closer view of the sphenophyllum stem fragment.

Recommended Books for the Pittsburgh Roadcuts:

A Guide to Pennsylvanian (Carboniferous) Age Plant Fossils of Southwest Virginia
by Thomas F. McLoughlin, 2013

Yes, I know it says Western Virginia, but the Coal forests in Western Virginia was very similar to the forests of Central PA. It was one giant forest that ran down the ancient delta.

This book is chulk full of illustrations, 280 to be exact, many of which are in color. These illustrations makes identifying almost any carboniferous plant fossil a simple task. If you collect fossil ferns from the Carboniferous, this well organized book will serve as your identification guide.

Fossil Collecting in the Mid-Atlantic States: With Localities, Collecting Tips, and Illustrations of More than 450 Fossil Specimens
by Jasper Burns, 1991

This book is a classic! Although some of the fossil hunting site listed in this book no longer exist, it shows what fossils can be found in the same area. What makes this book a classic is Jasper Burns incredible sketches of the locations and the fossils found at each location. It is a very descriptive and useful guide book. Even after all these years, I still find myself referencing it!

Included are numerous Carboniferous plant sites in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.

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