It looks like wild rice—tiny grains of brown with flecks of black and mustard. But looking close with the silver hand lens he always carries in his pocket, Marcus Ross sees those granules take on an unmistakable curve and edge. "It's a shark's tooth,"he says, pinching the tiny black fossil between his wet fingers.
A bulging, silver bag of dirt rests in the corner of the room, surrounded by sheets of yellowing newspaper. Warped and crisp, the newspaper is covered with a thin layer of drying mud laced with vertebrate remains.
Marcus Ross is sifting for dinosaurs.
About a dozen prune juice jars filled with water and settling sediment line the counter. The tedious task of separating fossils from their matrix (the surrounding sediment) starts here. "It is a lot like doing your laundry—sort, rinse, repeat," says Ross, who is working under Roger Cuffey, professor of geosciences. "Dr. Cuffey gave me the jars," he says, chuckling. "I don't know why he had so many prune juice jars. I don't ask."
Using a spaghetti strainer to sift through the sludge in the prune juice jars, Ross is left with those tiny granules and an occasional dinosaur tooth or fossilized bone.
Ross's analysis of these fossils in their matrix will help to support a new dinosaur population theory. The New Jersey State Museum in Trenton is trying to map the ancient shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean by tracing one long excavation bed up the East Coast. Ross's work is part of a Faunal Assemblage Study, which identifies the vertebrates that occupied a specific region during a set time period. His samples come from Elizabethtown, North Carolina, and are being compared to fossils found by the New Jersey State Museum along the New Jersey coast. Similarities between the remains in North Carolina and New Jersey will suggest a common coastal ecosystem and support the museum's coastline theory.
The first fully mountable dinosaur skeleton was found in Haddonfield, New Jersey, and is on display at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. But dinosaur fossils like the Academy's are rare in the eastern U.S. "When you go out west you can find intact dinosaur fossils and even entire skeletons. That's not usually the case here," says Ross, sifting through fragmented bone fossils, sea-tortoise shell pieces, and some crocodile teeth. "Due to the wetter climate of the East Coast, preservation is not very good. And in a coastal environment, like at Elizabethtown, you have the crashing waves and other stresses on the remains." But dinosaurs did exist in this coastal area—mostly carnivorous species and hadrosaurs, or duckbill dinosaurs.
Ross's samples come from a late-Cretaceous period sediment, deposited about 76 to 65 million years ago. The New Jersey State Museum already sifted some vertebrate remains from the matrix, and Ross hopes to find more.
"It' s a little messy," he says, rubbing moist clay and dirt off his hands. "But I enjoy rummaging around in the mud trying to find anything. And finding my own bits of dinosaur—it's very exciting for me. I remember a time when we were walking around in a pit of green and brown sludge called Glauconite and I was in up to my shins. I almost lost a foot it was sucked so deeply into the mud, but I was finding fossils I had never seen before.
"For me being able to do my own research is the beginning of my lifelong dream to be a paleontologist," says Ross, whose sixth grade teacher nicknamed him Marcusaurus. "It's so different than classroom exercises, where students quickly get up from their lab tables to look at fossils. I spend every day working with these fossils. My work becomes more personal and focused."
Marcus Ross graduated in May 1998 with a B.S. in Earth Sciences from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. Roger Cuffey, Ph.D., is professor of geosciences, 412 Deike Bldg, University Park, PA 16802; 8148651293; firstname.lastname@example.org. The North Carolina Faunal Analysis is being conducted by the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton under the direction of David Parris.