There be dragons

Hadrosaurus foulkii  Jim, the Photographer/Flickr

Hadrosaurus foulkii  Jim, the Photographer/Flickr

This week New Jersey made the pages of the British tabloid Daily Mail with a spread on the fossil site in Mantua, purchased by Rowan University late last year. Finds in the former quarry may yield clues to the mass extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

This wouldn't be New Jersey's only claim to fossil fame since the first dinosaur skeleton the world had ever seen was dug from a marl pit in Haddonfield in 1858. Hadrosaurus foulkii, a duck-billed dinosaur some 30 feet long, still has a special place in the affections of the Garden State. This article I wrote for Inside Jersey last year explains more:

Where dinosaurs walked

Nothing’s more basic to gardening than the earth beneath our feet.  A piece of land isn’t just a homestead, though, but a piece of personal geology. We’re dealing with the ancient past every time we heave a shovelful of native soil.

Although it seems pretty tame now, New Jersey has a fairly dramatic geological past. It’s a tale of mountains worn to nubs, glaciers advancing and retreating, ancient seas rising and falling and terrain squeezed into valleys and ridges by the clash of continents.

It’s not surprising that there be dragons here – the “thunder lizards” we call dinosaurs – but it is quite astonishing how rich the fossil record is in New Jersey and how important the finds made here have been.

Consider this: The clay-like marl pits of southern New Jersey yielded the most earth-shattering archeological discovery in the world and our stream-cut coastal plain is a rich hunting ground for fossil hunters to this day. New Jersey fossils represent nine of the 11 eras of earth history, a record more prodigious than the Western Badlands.  Wake up to that, Jersey, and the earth beneath your feet will never again seem inert or uninteresting.

The first fossilized bone found in America was discovered in 1787 in Woodbury Creek, Gloucester County. The “large thighbone” was examined at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin, among others. But that was nothing compared to the find made in 1858 in a marl pit along a tributary of the Cooper River in Haddonfield by William Parker Foulke.

It was the very first nearly complete fossilized skeleton ever found, the remains of Hadrosaurus foulkii, a duck-billed dinosaur measuring some 30 feet nose to tail. It was a worldwide sensation -- and created tremendous controversy at a time when people had more faith in the bible than in scientific claims of a staggering age for our planet.

The original hadrosaurus bones are kept in a cabinet at the Philadelphia Museum of Natural Sciences, where a version (assembled from casts) was the first mounted dinosaur skeleton the world had ever seen. The New Jersey State Museum has its cast-made skeleton, too, and we have claimed the hadrosaurus as our “official state dinosaur.”

Two other finds were especially significant.  In 1869 a nearly complete mastodon was unearthed from the marl pits of Mannington Township in Salem County, once an icy tundra. And in 1929 and 1930, dinosaur footprints were discovered at clay works in Woodbridge, Middlesex County, the only known Cretaceous dinosaur footprints in the eastern United States.

Big Brook fossil hunting  Vilseskogen/Flickr

Big Brook fossil hunting  Vilseskogen/Flickr

Meanwhile, Big Brook on the border of Marlboro and Colts Neck in Monmouth County is on the map as one of the richest sources of fossils today on the East Coast.

“As far as a great place to collect Cretaceous fossils that’s open to the public – there’s nothing like Big Brook,” says Ned Gilmore, collections manager of vertebrate zoology at the Philadelphia Museum of Natural Sciences. “Significant finds there include a good concentration of shark teeth, a fairly complete turtle, and fossils of lungfish, hadrosaurus and dryptosaurus, a smaller relative of Tyrannosaurus rex that was the hadrosaurus’ carnivorous enemy.”

Interested? Google “Big Brook fossils.” And realize that there are rules: Collect from the streambed only, no excavation allowed and permits are required (from Colts Neck Township) for groups of 15 or more.

Fossils of mega-fauna aren’t the only remnant from New Jersey’s ancient past – there’s flora, too. Thielke Arboretum in Glen Rock two years ago announced it would dedicate a two-acre portion of the 11-acre site to a “prehistoric garden” featuring species that have survived from distant eras.

A grove of venerable black pines carpeted with abundant ferns had the right sort of spooky feel to suggest a hushed passage through a kinder, gentler Jurassic Park. No one will get eaten here, but they will make their way through a very special place planted with trees and other plants that have survived virtually unchanged since their first appearance in the earth’s evolving landscape.

And what trees would those be? Start with hemlock, deodar cedar, ginkgo biloba, dawn redwood, bald cypress and star and sweet bay magnolias. Add some mountain laurel, rheum (a genus that includes rhubarb) and gunnera, a perennial wetlands plant with gigantic leaves. Throw in a surprise or two for the kids, like a dinosaur ring toss game for seasonal festivals.

“We’ve built a dinosaur nest of woven twigs and branches out in the woods,” says Carol Thielke, arboretum director. “It could be waiting for a dinosaur to lay a few eggs in it.”

If a fund-raising campaign is successful, the site may soon include an environmental learning center where youngsters can be infected with a healthy regard for nature, now and way back when. They will have a chance to learn about what lies below, too, in the hidden record of New Jersey’s ancient past when dinosaurs shook the earth and prehistoric sharks plied the coastal seas.


Thielke Arboretum:

The arboretum of located at 460 Doremus Ave., Glen Rock. There is no parking on the grounds; park at the adjacent municipal pool parking lot. Hours are dawn to dusk daily and admission is free. For information on events, see or call 201-447-0452.

Big Brook:

Big Brook Preserve, part of the Monmouth County Park System, is accessed from 30 Route 520, Marlboro, or 127 Hillside Road, Colts Neck. Hours are 7 a.m. to dusk daily and admission is free. Up to five fossils may be collected daily per person from the streambed but excavating is not allowed.

Fossils are small and require prior knowledge to spot. Supervised tours led by “Dr. Dinosaur,” Paul Kovalski, are periodically scheduled by the Marlboro Township Recreation and Parks Commission. Call 732-617-0100 or see Group permits (15 or more persons) are available for $25 and up from Colts Neck Town Hall, 124 Cedar Drive, Colts Neck.