Part-time Paleontologists Make Big-time Contributions
By Emily Matthews, Teen Newsroom producer.
Over 500 million years ago, during the Ediacaran period, an experiment began — one that would lay the foundations for humanity and all of the creatures we know today. Before predation, before teeth and bone, soft creatures filled the ocean. Some swayed back and forth like plant fronds. Others resembled tubes or worms. But all of this fauna shared significance; it marked the beginning of one of the most important shifts in evolution — the development of multicellular life.
“This is the leap, the transition, the beginning of multicellular life,” explained Trish Weaver, the Paleontology and Geology Collections Manager at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences.
For over two billion years, life came in one form: eukaryotes; they had reined over the planet alone long before the emergence of more complex creatures. The Ediacaran Period changed this. While unicellular life still dominated the planet, soft marine biota began to evolve. These creatures, experimental and imperfect, were the first step towards widespread complex life. But, like the fauna of today, they still depended on unicellular life; mats of microbes covering the seafloor provided them with both homes and food.
As the Ediacaran fauna died off, these mats preserved their history. Due to the lack of hard, easily preservable parts, mostly trace fossils and impressions of once-living biota in the microbial mat remain. Despite the age of these fossils, they are found in abundance in a few locations, such as Australia’s Ediacara Hills, which gave this period its name. In scarce amounts, North Carolina also harbors Ediacaran fossils. One might imagine finding these rare fossils in North Carolina would take years of searching by professional paleontologists, but some of the most significant finds have been made not by experts but by everyday people.
In 1973, John Brattain found the first Ediacaran fossil in North Carolina. A high school student at the time, he discovered a specimen of Pteridinium, a ribbed animal that lived lying down on microbial mats like much of its fellow fauna. At the time, paleontologists misidentified this creature as a trilobite, for the idea of such ancient multicellular life was unheard of.
Though Brattain was the first, he wasn’t the last amateur to find Ediacaran fossils in North Carolina; in Stanly County, Steve Teeter found another Pteridinium fossil in one of the stones of an old chimney on his family property. Similarly, while searching a rock bank, Tony C. Furr found Swartpuntia, a fronded creature visually resembling modern plants more than animals, in a relative’s yard.
But no other amateur paleontologist has found more of these fossils in North Carolina than Ruffin Tucker. His first discovery came as unexpected as the aforementioned ones — perhaps even more so. While attending a wedding at a church in Oakboro, NC, Tucker made a remarkable find in the form of a roughly 200-pound slab of fossils. Wearing his light-blue tuxedo, Tucker crammed this block, and others containing Pteridinium, into his trunk. His discovery came just in time; today, the slab’s old resting place has long since been paved over.
While these discoveries may seem unlikely, many eager amateurs add up to someone being in the right place and time.
“We couldn’t do what we do without [amateur paleontologists],” explains Weaver. “They’re our eyes on the ground.” No paleontologists could have found Teeter’s Pteridinium or Furr’s Swartpuntia; private property guarded both. And had Tucker not uncovered the church’s Ediacaran slab, cement would have buried it before any expert could have detected it.
With a bit of practice and perseverance, anyone could add to these discoveries. Rarely does one stumble across fossils without any prior experience or knowledge, but this is easily remedied. Fossil clubs, where people meet to share their hobby in fossil collecting, provide excellent gateways into amateur paleontology, and with the proper permissions, one can soon begin uncovering these remnants of ancient life.
Scroll through the photos below to see some fossils from the Ediacaran period.