UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — While exploring for fossils with her father in the State College area in 2014, Penn State geobiology major Anna Whitaker discovered a fossil of a prehistoric starfish. The Whitakers brought the excavated fossil to the University to be analyzed. Mark Patzkowsky, professor of geosciences, identified the starfish as an ophiuroid, labeling it the first of its kind to be discovered in Centre County. He compared it to samples discovered at Swatara Gap, around 75 miles southeast of State College, and it was a nearly perfect match.
EMS undergraduate uncovers over 300 fossils at local site during summer research
“The fossil I discovered is over 450 million years old,” explained Whitaker, now a senior. “At that point, Pennsylvania would have been completely underwater.”
This historical fact was crucial in the identification process of the ophiuroid. The ecology of organisms changes in different water levels, and geobiologists can learn more about certain species based on the geographical history of where the fossils are found. The era from which Whitaker’s ophiuroid belonged is known as the Ordovician Period.
After her discovery, Whitaker noticed the lack of information about Ordovician ecology in the area and wanted to learn more. “I wanted to explore a place where there wasn’t much research being done,” she said. “I wanted to fill in that gap.”
Whitaker applied for and was awarded an Erickson Discovery Grant for the summer of 2017. Penn State’s Erickson Discovery Grant program allows students in any field of study to conduct their own projects, and contributes to the work of more than 60 students each year.
While guided by research adviser Max Christie, Whitaker conducted paleontological digs at her research site, located near Tussey Mountain.
“It was fun,” she said. “Dr. Christie was there for support, but when I was on site, I got to do a lot of the paleontological work independently.”
The ophiuroid fossil she discovered was located in a sample of Reedsville shale, a type of sedimentary rock common in the areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and Virginia. To conduct her research, Whitaker had to extract the Reedsville shale from beneath the top layers of sandstone using rock hammers and chisels, and personally performed all fossil identification onsite.
Whitaker will compare her collected fossils to each other and to other fossils found in excavation projects in neighboring states to discover more about the ways in which the organisms would have interacted with their surrounding environment.
Throughout the course of the summer, Whitaker discovered more than 300 fossils in several dig sites all located within 50 miles of State College. Her work is currently being compared to a study on Ordovician ecology conducted by Dale Springer at Virginia Tech in 1982.
“We’re already seeing some preliminary findings,” Whitaker said. “My research is already making real contributions.”
After graduation, she plans on attending graduate school with aspirations of museum studies.