Fossil Hunting

The whole point of writing these place journals is Professor Stedman’s way for us to engage with the natural environment and surrounding, biotic and abiotic alike. But in order to truly engage with the physical landscape of the surrounding environment, one has to understand the natural history of the area. Ithaca has quite a fascinating natural history and by understanding this history, I am able to understand why the hills at Cornell are so steep and deadly and how the whole campus is built on a huge pile of fossils.

The story starts around 480 million years ago when the surrounding mountains around Ithaca was created through the multiple continental collisions that also formed the supercontinent Pangaea. By 290 million years ago, the mountain height around these regions rivaled the height of the Himalayas. At the start of the Devonian period, Ithaca was actually at the equator and had very warm climate (sadly this isn’t true anymore). The surrounding area had shallow saltwater sea that had a diverse marine life. As time pass, the skeletal remains of these marine organisms starts to pile up which eventually forms the limestone deposits of Ithaca. The sea started to erode the landscape, which formed the shale and sandstone that is formed around the finger lakes. The water eventually evaporated which formed the thick salt deposits that are currently being mined beneath Cayuga and Seneca Lakes.

But 2 million years ago, the planet started to cool and Earth entered a period of glaciation. The finger lakes were all carved out of the valleys by northward flowing rivers by multiple periods of glacial advances and retreats. Because these glaciers are not capable of preserving fossils, the fossils that are present in Ithaca are from the late Devonian period, roughly around 370 million years ago. There are a 4 major fossil groups, brachiopods, clams, crinoids and trilobites. Each is quite distinctive and all could be found on the Cornell campus!

For my biology class, we are currently learning about evolution and how through fossils we are able to find evidence of that. This is why we went fossil hunting in the Cornell gorges. Walking down 40 meters, I was fully surrounded by shale rocks around me. It is quite an impressive sight. Picking up pieces of shale, I tried to look for signs of fossil and after a few failed attempts, I started to find small brachiopods on the rocks. This was really really cool. I felt like I was going back 370 million years ago. But to be honest I cannot even imagine how long 370 years ago and how tropical and different this area was. It would be very cool to go back and witness this event for myself.

This overall allowed me to realize that it is important to not in a sense “judge a book by its cover”. Understanding the natural history of Ithaca allowed me to appreciate the gorges even more allowing me to better immerse myself into this natural surrounding.


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