Celebrating the Richness of Paleontology through Fossil Hunting

Fossil Collectin Trip: St. Clair, PA - White Fossil Ferns - Carboniferous

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Near St. Clair, PA

Fossil Fern hunt

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

October 2010

Anthracite coal boulder used as landscaping
When you see large anthracite coal boulders used for landscaping and restaurant decor, you know you are in St. Clair.
The restaurant decor in the above image is from Vito’s Coal Fired Pizza and Restaurant, a tastey restaurant in St. Clair.

Carboniferous Fern Hunt at St. Clair

On a cool October morning, I left for one of the many abandoned strip mines near St. Clair, PA. Many of these excavated strip mines are now used for ATV’s, hunting, and shooting ranges by locals. The area was almost turned into a land fill. I was not going there for any of those reasons, especially the land fill! I was here because of the unique fossils found in the Llewellyn Formation, which surfaces in a few abandoned strip mines in the area.

The Llewellyn Formation:

This is a Pennsylvanian age formation (precisely 300 to 308 myo) that contain sequences of Sandstone, Siltstone, Shale, Conglomerate, and Anthracite Coal (according to the USGS). Each layer represents a different depositional environment. In particular, the shale was probably formed from sedimentation of a muddy bottomed coastal lagoon. During storms, plant material in the coastal bogs (which were abundant during this time period) would be washed offshore into the lagoon. Many of these plant fragments settled onto the low oxygen muddy bottom of the lagoon and were covered by a rain of fine black sediment. The ferns became fossilized in the black shale layers.

Unique Fossils:

Fern fossils in shale near coal seams are incredibly common, and expected. However, what makes this site unique is what happened later. During fossilization, Pyrite replaced allot of the organic plant material, giving the fossils an orange color. However at some later time, through oxidation and replacement reactions, the Pyrite was replaced by a white substance called Pyrophyllite in sections of the fern laden shale. This caused many of the orange fern fossils to turn white. This is a very rare occurrence. So, today, the Llewellyn formation contains unique fossils, white ferns preserved on black shale. Anytime you see a white fern on a slab of black shale in a natural history museum, chances are, it’s from St. Clair

The Trip:

I arrived to a busy place, there were a few other groups of collectors already there looking for promising fossils that Mother Nature did not yet erode away. I scouted around, found a promising spot, and proceeded to extract some larger fern plates. It’s easy to get fragments of ferns, it's much more difficult to get a larger section, as the shale is brittle. After a few hours, I left the place with some promising fern plates.

This is a view of the abandoned stip mine.  It is primarily used for ATV paths.
This is a view of the abandoned strip mine. It is primarily used for ATV paths.

The fossil bearing formation is exposed at ground level.  This mean one literally walks on fossil fern fragments.
The fossil bearing formation is exposed at ground level. This means one literally walks on fossil fern fragments.

Some layers contain so many ferns that the individual ferns are unrecognizable, and just a smear is seen. In this image, most of the ferns are orangish in color, so it looks like a big orange smear.

Sample fossils from the trip:

St. Clair Fossil Fern Plate
18" x 15" (46 x 38 cm) Fern Plate. A close look at this plate shows alethopteris, neuropteris, and sphenophylum specimens

St. Clair Fossil Fern Plate
20" x 12" (51 x 30 cm) Fern Plate. This one doesn't look nice, however, there are a few rows of ferns that are squished, as if it is has undergone slight metamorphosis. This is difficult to see in the image.

St. Clair Fossil Fern Plate
16" x 12" (41 x 30 cm) Fern Plate. This one has a bunch of orange alethopteris and a few neuropteris smashed together.

fossil fern: alethopteris
This fragment has an alethopteris fern running across the center.

This specimen might be a sphenopteris plant fragment

This fragment has a faint sphenophylum running across it

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