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IPFW staff ‘dig' fossil finds near and far

Grant Co. sinkhole a time capsule from 5 million years ago.

Monday, May 26, 2008 - 12:01 am

Replica dinosaurs will be snorting and stomping around later this week inside Memorial Coliseum for the “Walking with Dinosaurs: The Live Experience” show.

But barely more than the length of a brachiosaurus away, IPFW faculty have been digging up interesting “dinosaur” finds through their own research.

Prehistoric sinkhole

One of the most significant projects has been the recovery and analysis of fossils from a prehistoric sinkhole at the Pipe Creek Junior quarry southwest of Marion.

“It’s a time capsule,” said James Farlow, a professor of geology at IPFW who is leading the investigation of the site. “It is an ecosystem in deep storage. We are taking it out of deep storage and inventorying it.”

Finds have included fossilized remains from bears, rhinos, camels, turtles, rodents, snakes and salamanders. The fossils have been dated to about 5 million years ago, a period between the end of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago and the coming of the Ice Age 30,000 years ago.

The site is one of only two in the eastern United States that provide a glimpse of life during that time period, said Farlow, who has been working on the project for about 10 years. Also participating have been staff from the Indiana State Museum, Indiana Geological Survey, University of Kansas and Baylor University.

Researchers have collected all of the fossils still buried at the site, Farlow said. They still plan to sift through the spoil pile of dirt removed from the top of the site before quarry workers realized what they had found.

“We want to get every fossil we can get,” Farlow said.

When he is not working on the sinkhole project, Farlow also studies dinosaur footprints.

Most of his work on footprints has taken place along the Paluxy River around Dinosaur Valley State Park in central Texas, he said. The footprints offer clues to how many different kinds of dinosaurs lived in that area. He also tries to compare the footprints here with dinosaur footprints in other parts of the world.

Early sea creatures

Two other IPFW faculty members have focused their research on creatures that lived in prehistoric seas.

Raymond Gildner, a visiting assistant professor of geology, has been studying the growth of shelled sea creatures, such as squids, Farlow said. Gildner could not be reached for this article.

Benjamin Dattilo, an assistant professor of geology, has unearthed knowledge about clamlike brachiopods as well as sponges and reefs.

Brachiopods covered the bottom of warm, shallow waters about 450 million years ago, Dattilo said. “They are one of the most common creatures and often overlooked.”

Scientists have thought brachiopods stayed in one place their entire lives. Dattilo has found signs suggesting brachiopods did move — at least a little.

Fossil evidence shows small moats around some brachiopod shells, as well as disturbed sediment around those shells, Dattilo said. He believes those brachiopods “blasted out” the moats as they tried to escape from sediment a storm tossed over them.

Dattilo also studies the evolution of prehistoric reefs.

That research has taken him to southern Nevada, where a fossil deposit of sponges and bacteria from about 500 million years ago appears to be an early form of a reef, he said.

Reefs expanded dramatically during the Silurian and Devonian periods of prehistory, which stretched from about 440 million to 360 million years ago. The creatures that formed reefs also experienced major extinctions about 380 million and 250 million years ago, Dattilo said.

Falls of the Ohio State Park near Clarksville in southern Indiana contains one of the world’s largest areas of exposed prehistoric reef, he said.