Astronomy Update – An Evening with a Girl Scout Troop

By Ernie Jacobs

On Saturday June 10th Penn dixie had the pleasure of hosting an outstanding group of young ladies (and their moms) from Troop 31339 from Orchard Park. The troop contacted Penn Dixie to work on their Sky Badge. The special event, marked the first successful astronomy program of the year, the weather was perfect. We took them on a tour of the night sky, identifying various stars, constellations, and we were able to view many awesome celestial objects. We had three telescopes set up, two for visual observing and one for imaging. We also had an opportunity to discuss the upcoming eclipse on August 21st.

Here are few pictures from the evening. Note: All images of celestial objects were captured during the event at Penn Dixie by Penn Dixie’s Jim Maroney.

Members of the troop trying out eclipse glasses as the Sun was setting. Picture taken by Ernie Jacobs.
final jupiter penn dixie 6_10_17
An image of Jupiter captured during the event. Image was captured and processed by Penn Dixie’s Jim Maroney.
M13 Penn dixie 6_10_17
Messier 13 – The Globular Cluster in the Constellation Hercules. M13 is about 145 light-years across, 25,100 light-years away, and contains several hundred thousand stars. Image captured and processed by Penn Dixie’s Jim Maroney.
mizzar penn dixie 6_10_17
The Visual Double Star Mizar and Alcor located in the handle of the Big Dipper. Mizar itself is actually a quadruple star system and Alcor is a binary star system. Together they comprise a sextuple star system! Image captured and processed by Penn Dixie’s Jim Maroney.

Hopefully this marks an improvement with regard to our luck with the weather. Our next event is this coming Saturday June 17th at 8:30 pm. We hope to see you there!

Clear Skies!

Ernie Jacobs

Astronomy Update

By Ernie Jacobs

Mother Nature has not been very cooperative with regard to our Penn Dixie Astronomy programs this year.  Our March and April events were cancelled due to weather. We were mostly foiled again this past Saturday evening (5/20) for our Jupiter at the Meridian event. After a mostly cloud free sky all day long, the clouds rolled in before sunset. I say mostly foiled because we weren’t completely foiled.

We did have a brief window of opportunity to view Jupiter through multiple telescopes as we were fortunate to be joined by several members of the Buffalo Astronomical Association (BAA). Both Jim Maroney and I belong to the BAA in addition to volunteering with Penn Dixie.

We really appreciate our colleagues taking the time to share their time and experience with us and visitors to the site. Specifically I would like to thank Steve Smith, Dennis Brylinski, and Mike Anzalone. Check out the BAA at They hold monthly public nights at their Beaver Meadow Observatory (1st Saturday of the month thru October) and BAA member Steve Smith holds monthly star parties in Wilson, NY (Wilson Star Search – 2nd Saturday of the month thru October).

Astronomers setting up Saturday May 20th hoping for clear skies.  We did get a brief window to provide visitors to the site views of Jupiter through multiple telescopes.

Of course the big Astronomy event for 2017 will be the Great American Eclipse on August 21st. To experience totality (highly recommended) you will need to travel to the roughly 100 mile wide band that will cut across America from Oregon to South Carolina. Western New York will experience a partial eclipse. Approximately 75% of the face of the Sun will be blocked by the Moon. Penn Dixie is also coordinating with other local organizations to provide safe viewing opportunities for Western New Yorkers.  Check out for more information.

A map of the upcoming Total Eclipses of the Sun visible in North America.

Hopefully our fortunes with the weather improve for the rest of the season (especially on August 21st for the eclipse)! The next Penn Dixie Astronomy Night is scheduled for Saturday June 17th. We hope to see you there! 

Clear Skies!

Ernie Jacobs

Pyritized Fossils at Penn Dixie

By Jay Wollin, Educator

While the Penn Dixie site is world renowned for its excellent trilobites, and perhaps even for its incredibly abundant corals, there are small, relatively underappreciated areas of the site which can offer unique and exciting treasures for those willing to take a closer look.

The site is broken up into several main areas which are frequented by our visitors. Among the most popular are our “trilobite beds” and the aptly-named “brachiopod pit”. Different areas of the site represent different exposures and layers of strata. While large portions of the 54-acre site are teeming with fossil horn corals, brachiopods, and trilobites, there are are other sections of the site which represent entirely different conditions.

This location, just to the left of the main parking lot entrance is home to some of Penn Dixie’s pyritized prizes.

During fossilization, there a process known as permineralization. During this process, empty spaces that were present in the living organisms are filled with groundwater, rich in minerals leached from the surrounding materials. This process can fill in very small spaces, even those within cell walls. Depending on the types of minerals present and the conditions during fossilization, this process can result in many interesting types of preservation. One of such types is known as pyritization.

An example of pure iron pyrite, or Fool’s Gold.

Pyrite is an iron sulphide and is often lustrous and gold in color, giving cause for its common name, Fool’s Gold. Under rather specific circumstances it can coat or fill gaps during the fossilization process. Typically, in order for pyritization to occur, organisms must be deposited in seawater areas that are low in both organic matter, and dissolved oxygen. This oxygen-deficient water create what is known as an anaerobic environment. In this environment, certain bacteria are able to survive and flourish. When combined with reactive iron, these bacteria convert the sulphates into sulphides which results in a pyrite mineralization in the remains.

At the Penn Dixie site it is possible to uncover beautiful, golden pyritized specimens, however, the vast majority have exhibit a higher iron content and have weathered out and oxidized to present with a metallic rust colored finish. These fossils are generally rather small in size—averaging roughly 5mm in diameter—and tend only to appear in the site’s “Pyrite Beds.”

Pyritized fossils and pyrite nodules in situ in the Penn Dixie Pyrite Beds.

To the untrained eye, these diminutive fossils could easily be mistaken for pebbles or debris. Upon closer examination however, one can find many interesting examples of Devonian critters. Pyritized goniatites, gastropods, brachiopods, ambocaelia and even trilobites can be found with some effort.

While the “Pyrite Bed” at Penn Dixie represents a rather small and unassuming portion of the site, those willing to spend the time and effort to examine the surface closely can find a veritable treasure-trove of unique and interesting fossils. Don’t be fooled, all that glitters is not gold… sometimes it’s pyritized fossils!

Clockwise from upper-left: Ambocaelia sp.; Greenops boothi; Goniatites sp., possibly G. uniangularis; Nuculites sp.; Loxonema sp.; and an unidentified brachiopod. Click fossils for larger images. All photos courtesy of Jay Wollin.

Penn Dixie’s Shirley Landsittel wins tourism award!

Outstanding tourism awardee Shirley Landsittel and Director of Education Dr. Holly Schreiber displaying the Beacon Award following the ceremony.

With great pleasure we announce that Penn Dixie Lead Educator Shirley Landsittel has been named the Visit Buffalo Niagara Tourism Employee of the Year! Shirley received the honor at the 7th Annual Beacon Awards held in the Buffalo Convention Center on May 9, 2017. From the Beacon Awards website:

The tourism industry in Erie County reported $1.6 billion in revenues in 2016, spent across a diverse range of sectors: from lodging, recreation and food and beverage, to retail and services, transportation and even second homes! This year’s luncheon will recognize nearly 60 nominees to receive the prestigious Beacon Award in honor of their outstanding achievements to the industry.

Shirley was nominated for her exceptional customer service, focus on improving the Penn Dixie visitor experience, help with training new employees, patience with challenges and obstacles, great ideas and suggestions, reliability, and willingness to help out wherever needed — even on her days off. Please don’t hesitate to congratulate Shirley in person — she’ll be at the site quite a bit this season!

Executive Director Dr. Phil Stokes, The VBN Buffalo, Lead Educator Shirley Landsittel, and Director of Education Dr. Holly Schriber at the Buffalo Convention Center.

Keynote speakers at the ceremony included Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, and Visit Buffalo Niagara President/CEO Patrick Kaler. Over 600 individuals attended the ceremony to honor excellence in tourism.

2017 Dig with the Experts Updates

Some general notes for those planning to attend:

  1. We will be open on Monday May 29 — Memorial Day. Admission on this day will be free for anyone who registered for the dig. Regular admission rates will be available for the general public. There is no need to sign up to visit on Monday. Penn Dixie will be open 9-4 on Memorial Day.
  2. For those who wish to arrive early on Saturday or Sunday: The gate will open at approximately 8 am and we will begin parking guests at that time. Please be advised that our staff will not be ready to handle check-ins until shortly before 9 am.
  3. The dig officially ends at 4 pm on Saturday and Sunday. However, the site remains open until 5 pm on both days. And, you are welcome to stay late if you’d like. We just ask that you move your vehicle outside the gate so that our staff can complete the process of closing for the evening.
  4. To our out of town visitors: welcome!! Here’s a link to the Hamburg Chamber visitor’s guide with some great suggestions for restaurants and attractions:
  5. Don’t forget that PaleoJoe Kchodl will present Trilobite Treasures: Arthropods of the Ancient Seas on Friday at 6:30 pm in the Gateway Auditorium at 3556 Lakeshore Road in Blasdell. Joe is a real treasure to the science education community and we are excited about having him back again this year.
  6. If you’re new to Penn Dixie, be sure to check out our FAQ.

Bellacartwrightia: A Singular Specimen

Bellacartwrightia enlarged
Bellacartwrightia whiteleyi trilobite uncovered by Alasdair Gilfillin at Penn Dixie in 2016.

Every so often, one of our visitors uncovers a truly spectacular fossil. The preservation might be perfect, the assemblage of different fossils might be unique, or the type of fossil might be very uncommon. In this case, we present a beautifully preserved and uncommon trilobite called Bellacartwrightia whiteleyi.

Bellacartwrightia side view
Sideview of Bellacartwrightia. Trilobite is approximately 1.5 inches long.

Penn Dixie member Alasdair Gilfillan discovered this trilobite at our park on October 3, 2016. Our dig season was coming to a close and Alasdair decided to spend a weekend visiting us from New Jersey. Alasdair dug into the infamous Smoke Creek trilobite bed of the Windom Shale and unearthed what he thought was a Greenops — an uncommon trilobite that seems to represent one or two of every 100 or so trilobites that are found. Instead, Alasdair found something much rarer. He writes:

You may remember that I found a nice (though at the time partially covered) trilobite which I thought was a Greenops that day. I managed to get it prepped and it turns out that it was a Bellacartwrightia, a much rarer form. The prep guy did a really nice job and it turned out to be a really fantastic specimen. Please find enclosed the photographs. The trilobite is ~ 1.5 inches long.

Alasdair adds that the prep work was done by Bob Miles — a former Penn Dixie board member who also took the photographs. We thank Alasdair for sharing his images and for his donation of many fossil specimens that were used in our school programs.

Bellcartwrightia front view
The Bellacartwrightia cephalon (head) resembles that of Greenops, but the two genera are not closely related.

Bellacartwrightia whiteleyi is uniquely found in the Devonian rocks of the Hamilton Group in New York State. This fossil was first described by Lieberman and Kloc in 1997; the original paper can be downloaded here. Bellacartwrightia was named after the wife of paleontologist Bruce Lieberman, who at the time was a postdoctoral fellow at the American Museum of Natural History. Dr. Lieberman is now at the University of Kansas. The paper explains how Bellacartwrightia is different from Greenops, another trilobite with a somewhat similar appearance. From page 29:

In addition, the members of this genus are phylogenetically distant from species assigned to true Greenops…These two Middle Devonian genera have not shared acommon ancestor since, at latest, the Siegenian [approx 411 million years ago], based on an analysis of ghost lineages. To treat these species as members of a genus Greenops would necessitate placing all of the asteropyginines within the genus Greenops.

There you have it — a new genus of trilobites first documented in 1997 and one of our members finds an excellent specimen 20 years after the discovery!

Bellacartwrightia in the host rock — Windom Shale.

Alasdair was kind enough to share additional photos of the Bellacartwrightia as well as some of his other treasures from Penn Dixie. Our visitors are welcome to keep any fossils that they find, but we do appreciate photos of particularly cool fossils for use on our website.

Phacops rana double plate
A plate of Phacops rana trilobites found in 2015.
Phacops rana single plate
A single Phacops from 2016.
Phacops rana enlarged
Phacops trilobite. Prep work by Bob Miles.

For further reading, here are some links:

Evolutionary and biogeographic patterns in the Asteropyginae (Trilobita, Devonian) Delo, 1935 on AMNH

Bellacartwrightia whiteleyi on AMNH

Textbook Bellacartwrightia on

Bellacartwrightia on

Penn Dixie Wins Innovation Award

Innovation Award 1
HNHS Board Members Dr. Marcus Bursik and Keith Wesolowski, Executive Director Dr. Phil Stokes, Director of Education Holly Schreiber, and Board Chair Jim Eiseman.

The Hamburg Natural History Society/Penn Dixie is honored to receive the 2017 Innovation Award from the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce. This award is given to business that introduce new ideas, methods, or products into the local community for the benefit of all. Penn Dixie is proud to bring attention to Hamburg and is grateful for this honor. The award was given at the chamber’s Annual Member Recognition Dinner which was held at Michael’s Catering & Banquets in Hamburg, NY.

Penn Dixie thanks its volunteers, members, and staff for their ongoing support. Our innovation begins with great ideas from our stakeholders and we would not be successful without your energy and enthusiasm. We appreciate our visitors who give our work meaning and who are science enthusiasts just like us. And, we thank our local teachers who bring their students to Penn Dixie every year.

We also thank our former director of education, Sarah Tarnowski. Sarah worked tirelessly during 2016 to develop new programs, train staff and volunteers, and build stronger relationships with the local education community.

Innovation Award 2
Erie County Legislator Lynne Dixon presented the award to Penn Dixie.

We also thank our local leaders who support Penn Dixie, including Legislator Lynne Dixon, County Executive Mark Poloncarz, and Congressman Chris Collins. Additionally, we thank the entire Erie County Legislature including Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo and Chairman John Mills. And, we thank Supervisor Steven Walters and the Hamburg Town Board. Support from our local government is crucial to the success and growth of our organization and we are appreciate leadership that is responsive and supportive of cultural organizations.

We are grateful for the support of the Hamburg and Buffalo Niagara business communities. We thoroughly enjoy working alongside so many people who are proud of their region and look forward to continued opportunities for collaboration. The Hamburg Chamber of Commerce is a wonderful resource and we acknowledge the incredibly helpful business advice provide by chamber staff and board members.

Finally, we acknowledge the other award nominees: Concept Construction, Prima Oliva, The Village of Hamburg, and M&T Bank. These groups are very active in the Hamburg community — and in fact we work with all of them in some capacity — and likewise deserve our gratitude.

Innovation Award
The award!

Our nomination excerpt:

Penn Dixie is a community-based organization that would not exist without the support of the Hamburg Town Board and local businesses, schools, and families. Our fossil park — a unique treasure itself — draws tourists most of the year. In 2016, we welcomed nearly 15,000 visitors — many from outside the area — who stayed in Hamburg while visiting. Our annual Dig with the Experts weekend in May, for instance, generates an estimated $30,000 economic impact. Our park is very fortunate to receive incredible publicity which continuously brings positive attention to Hamburg.