Oct
13
2010

Happy National Fossil Day!

Fossils in hand: A small six-inch square area of ground at a site near Cannon Falls, MN contains a handful of fossils.
Fossils in hand: A small six-inch square area of ground at a site near Cannon Falls, MN contains a handful of fossils.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Today is National Fossil Day! It’s a day set aside to raise and promote public awareness of the educational and scientific value of fossils found on public lands and elsewhere - and the importance of preserving them for future study. The day is co-sponsored by the National Park Service and the American Geological Institute, and is the first of what organizers hope will be an annual day of fossil appreciation.

Several national parks, museums, and professional organizations throughout the country are celebrating by hosting special events. Check here for national park activities, or check your favorite local museum’s website for NFD events in your area.

The Science Museum of Minnesota will have a slightly belated celebration of the day this coming Saturday (October 16) from 1pm-4pm with special fossil activities taking place in several galleries, including a first glimpse at the new mammoth skull that’s been under preparation in the paleo lab. The skull will be out on the floor in the Dinosaur and Fossils gallery.

Since the weather’s been so nice here in the Twin Cities area, I celebrated the day the best way I know how: by going fossil hunting. One of my favorite spots to collect is near the town of Cannon Falls, located about a forty-minute drive from my house in Minneapolis. I tossed my rock hammer, bags and other collecting implements (i.e. something to kneel on) into the backseat of my car and headed southeast.

There's fossils in that there ditch: as unlikely as it looks, the exposure of Decorah shale along CR 25 near Cannon Falls, MN is a prime fossil collecting site.
There's fossils in that there ditch: as unlikely as it looks, the exposure of Decorah shale along CR 25 near Cannon Falls, MN is a prime fossil collecting site.Courtesy Mark Ryan
There are three or four locations in the Cannon Falls area where I like to collect. One of them is quite well known, and has been used by students of all ages for fossil field trips (I first visited it in the 1970s as part of a paleontology class I took at the University of Minnesota). The site outcrops along Goodhue county road 25 at the crest of a hill just a couple miles out of town. It looks like any other road ditch, but it’s one of the best fossil sites in the state. Fossil motherlode: New fossils seem to come out of nowhere no matter how many times you scan the same patch of ground.
Fossil motherlode: New fossils seem to come out of nowhere no matter how many times you scan the same patch of ground.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The fossils found there are the remains of ancient marine life that lived on the bottom of a shallow sea that covered much of southern Minnesota during the Ordovician period about 450 million years ago. The fauna includes bryozoans (both branches and gumdrop-shaped prasopora), gastropods, horn coral, brachiopods, Cheerio-shaped crinoid stem segments, trilobites and cephalopods. In the Twin Cities the same fossil-bearing strata, known as the Decorah shale, can be found all along the upper banks of the Mississippi river. Ninety feet of the fossiliferous Decorah is exposed in the quarries at Lilydale Regional Park across from downtown St. Paul. Lilydale has been a popular collecting site for many years but access to it involves buying a permit, strenuous climbing, and sometimes precarious perching to get at the fossils. (The St. Paul parks department has closed Lilydale for the rest of the 2010 season due to flooding).

In Cannon Falls collecting couldn’t be easier. The topography is essentially flat and the fossils are mostly weathered out of their matrix, making for easy pickings.

All in a National Fossil Day's work: This represents about half of what I collected in a few hours.
All in a National Fossil Day's work: This represents about half of what I collected in a few hours.Courtesy Mark Ryan
I split a couple hours of collecting between two different locations: the roadside along CR25, and another site my brother and I learned about on a previous collecting trip from a curious local farmer who had stopped to ask what the heck we were doing in the ditch. I’m not ready to disclose the location of this other site just yet. But I will say it has yielded some very fine specimens in the two years I’ve been collecting there. As you can see by the photos, those few hours spent at Cannon Falls paid off well. Recent heavy rains had brought forth a whole new crop of fossils, making it one of the better field excursions I’ve made to the area in several months. It was a great way to celebrate National Fossil Day.

National Fossil Day art contest entry: and Third Place winner.
National Fossil Day art contest entry: and Third Place winner.Courtesy Mark Ryan
I also celebrated another way by entering a piece in the National Fossil Day art contest. I’m happy to report that I won Third Place in my age bracket (19 & above) with my Digging Fossils graphic (see photo). You can view all the winning entries at the National Fossil Day website.

MORE INFO
Previous Buzz story on Minnesota fossil collecting
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Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Brittany Ross-Grant's picture
Brittany Ross-Grant says:

The fossils are a unique pieces of history i find that very unique i have always liked fossils has a child .

posted on Sat, 12/18/2010 - 1:30pm

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