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SOS Rhino : In the News : Prehistoric life

Prehistoric life


Quarry's fossils could help solve a 5 million-year-old mystery.
By Kevin Kilbane
of The News-Sentinel
Thu, Jul. 03, 2003

James Farlow cradles a huge molar in his hand, a clue in what is a 5 million-year-old mystery.

The tooth -- about the size of a peach -- is a detailed cast, or replica, of a fossilized molar found in the red clay soil under his feet. The real tooth belonged to a teleoceras, a squatty rhinoceros that stood 3 feet to 4 feet tall and weighed about 300 pounds.

" Imagine a very fat rhino that wants to be a dachshund," jokes Farlow, a dinosaur expert at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Farlow's tone turns serious as he discusses the importance of the tooth and other fossils found over the last five years at the Pipe Creek Junior quarry southwest of Marion. He says the site is the first in the eastern United States to offer a glimpse of what life was like here between the Age of Dinosaurs, which ended 65 million years ago, and the Ice Age, which began 30,000 years ago.

" It (the quarry) tells us something about animals in North America from a time we simply knew nothing about," says Farlow, who received a $150,000 National Science Foundation grant to study the site. "It is not simply important for the state, it is nationally and internationally important."

The fossilized bones found from rhinos, camels, bears and wild dogs raise many questions: Did the animals wander in and die at what apparently was a marsh or pond? Were they ambushed by predators lurking in the lush vegetation? Or does the failure to find a complete skeleton -- at least so far -- suggest animals died above the sinkhole, that water later washed their remains into the low ground?

Farlow and other scientists believe the answers to those and other questions still lie in the site's unusual, reddish-brown soil.

On a recent day, IPFW senior Tamra Reece, 47, and members of an Indiana State Museum archaeological crew stand shoulder-deep in a 2-foot-wide trench in the earth. The trench cuts across one side of the 200-foot-diameter sinkhole, which sat on the surface of limestone deposits some 5 million years ago.

Museum staff and volunteers shovel excavated soil into 5-gallon buckets, which a lawn tractor hauls up a crushed-stone ramp to a service road overlooking the site. At the edge of the road, museum staff and volunteers dressed in rain gear stand at large sieves, squirting water through excavated soil to separate stone and fossils from sticky clay.

The sieves capture anything too big to fit through a window screen. The particles, which can include tiny bone fragments and rodent teeth, then go into bags for closer scrutiny in Farlow's laboratory at IPFW or at the state museum.

Quarry's rare finds

The stones and pebbles tell a tale that actually began more than 400 million years ago.

At that time, a shallow sea covered most of what is now the Midwest, says Jack Sunderman, professor emeritus of geology at IPFW. Over millions of years, corals and spongelike creatures known as stromotoporoids built up a mile-wide reef at what is now the Pipe Creek Junior quarry.

After the sea receded 390 million years ago, the reef gradually turned into limestone -- and a similar mineral, dolomite -- according to Sunderman, who has studied the quarry's geology for nearly 30 years.

Five years ago, quarry workers digging down to the top of the limestone bed unearthed an unusual pocket of red, clay soil. Normally found only in warm climates, the red clay resembles the soils of Georgia and other southern U.S. states.

Further study of the site led Sunderman to develop this theory: Drainage of surface water or the flow of an underground stream slowly carved a large cave just below the top of the former reef. Eventually -- he's not yet sure when -- the cave roof collapsed, creating a sinkhole.

Fossils of plants, frogs, turtles and snakes suggest the sinkhole became a pond or marsh surrounded by lush vegetation. The site attracted a wide variety of animals.

Fossilized bones date to about 5 million years ago, Farlow says. " This is pretty rare stuff," notes Ron Richards, the state museum's curator of paleobiology and natural history. Richards is helping to coordinate the dig, and fossils found eventually will go into the museum's collection.

Finds include bones from three species of prehistoric camel. One camel stood as tall as a llama, Farlow says. A second species stood slightly taller, while a third variety was long-necked and similar in size to a modern giraffe.

Camels became extinct here just before the Ice Age, Farlow says.

Other fossil discoveries include:
* A wild dog with large hyenalike jaws.
* A bear similar to the spectacled bear living today in the Andes Mountains.
* A tortoise comparable in size to the Galapagos tortoise.
* Peccaries, which are related to wild pigs.
* Numerous squirrels, mice and other rodents, including four species that had not been seen anywhere previously.
Farlow and the dig crew hope as-yet unturned soil may contain the remains of a saber-toothed cat. That's the paleontologically correct name for a creature formerly known as a saber-toothed tiger.

Glimpse of the landscape

But it is not the fossils themselves that most intrigue Farlow and Richards. It is the clues they provide to what life was like 5 million years ago -- a page virtually blank in geologic history books for this part of the country.

By comparing the growth rates of fossilized turtle bones with growth rates of modern turtles, Farlow hopes to learn about the climate and length of the seasons 5 million years ago. Fast growth would suggest a warm climate and long growing season.

Failure to find fossil evidence of prehistoric horses, which roamed North America at that time, could indicate the sinkhole lay in a forested area rather than on a grassy plain, Farlow says.

Using prior research on water's ability to move bones, Farlow also hopes to determine whether rhinos, camels and other large animals died at the sinkhole or whether rain or streams washed in their remains after they perished nearby.
In addition, the cross-section of fossils found at the quarry provide a rare, slice-of-life look at a small, prehistoric ecosystem, he says.

" That's what I enjoy -- looking for patterns and what they say about this site and time," he adds.

Farlow and Richards, who will complete the current dig Thursday, hope to finish all work at the Pipe Creek Junior quarry next summer. Because of other projects and commitments, they and their crew work at the site only about three weeks each summer.

The richness of the find, however, has Farlow pondering whether similar fossil caches exist in other limestone deposits.

" You wonder how many more of them are out there waiting to be found," he says.

Boning up on prehistory

What: Some of the 5 million-year-old fossils collected at the Pipe Creek Junior quarry near Marion are on display in the "Missing Record" exhibit at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis. The exhibit includes a lifelike replica of a teleoceras, a rhinoceroslike creature whose bones were found at the quarry.

When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.

Where: 650 W. Washington St., at White River State Park in downtown Indianapolis.

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