By Dr. Phil Stokes, Executive Director
Hamburg Natural History Society/Penn Dixie
With thousands of science enthusiasts from around the globe finding hundreds of thousands of fossils at Penn Dixie each year, you’d think that we’d seen it all after 28 seasons. But that’s not the case. A recent and unexpected discovery provides us new insights into the evolutionary history of an unusual group of fossils.
This April, two off-duty members of our educational team, Jonathan Hoag and James Hanna, uncovered the well-preserved remains of a mysterious and exceedingly rare animal – a ‘Carpoid’ – amongst the Devonian Period rocks at Penn Dixie. The remains, which date to approximately 382 million years old, are from a small invertebrate which lived in the ancient ocean that covered our region long before dinosaurs walked the Earth.
Carpoids are extinct echinoderms – they are related to living starfish, urchins, sea lilies (crinoids), and sand dollars. Carpoids are rather unique among the entire animal kingdom because some of them were completely asymmetrical; few other animals – living or extinct – lack both internal and external symmetry. Carpoids such as those discovered at Penn Dixie had cup-shaped bodies made of calcite plates and possessed an unusual circulatory system not found in other echinoderms. A short, spiny tail attached to the seafloor and held the animal in place while it filtered food from the water column. Some types of carpoids appear to have had gill slits, a feature that also is found in primitive vertebrate animals.
The unearthing of carpoid fossils from rocks of this particular age was unexpected. Carpoids first appeared during the Middle Cambrian Period some 500 million years ago. They are rare – and their fossil record is spotty – which makes it difficult to track their evolutionary history. They are not often found between their first and last appearance in the rock record making them a ‘ghost lineage’: they were living on earth, but we just don’t see the record of them. We know the animal was alive, however, because we find its ancestors and descendants separated in the fossil record – perhaps by tens of millions of years.
Preliminary identification of the newly discovered fossils by Dr. Ronald Parsley, a world expert on carpoids, indicates that they belong to the class of echinoderms known as Soluta – a branch of the carpoids previously thought to have gone extinct some 410 to 408 million years ago during the Early Devonian Period. If initial interpretations are confirmed, then the new Penn Dixie fossils would be placed at roughly 382 million years old – extending the geological range of the Solutes by 25 million years.
The Penn Dixie carpoids are a ‘Lazarus taxon:’ an animal that disappears from the fossil record, then reappears much later. Much like the biblical Lazarus rising from the dead, a Lazarus taxon rises figuratively from the graveyard of global extinction. Thanks to the Penn Dixie find, there’s new life in these old fossils.
Two Explorers, Two Discoveries
James Hanna and Jonathan Hoag share in their enthusiasm for fossil hunting. Besides having worked together at the #1 fossil park in the U.S. for five years, they also enjoy taking expeditions to other natural sites in the region to look for fossils while also spending time outdoors. Together, and sometimes with other Penn Dixie staff members, they can also be found recreationally fishing in the waters of Western New York.
Hanna, who is currently working towards a BS in Geological Sciences at the University at Buffalo, has 15 years of fossil collecting experience. He is planning to study paleontology once he completes his undergraduate degree. He has been a staff educator at Penn Dixie for the past five years. Prior to that, he volunteered for numerous special events at Penn Dixie during the summer months when he was not attending high school.
Hanna has an extensive fossil collection which takes up considerable space at home; all his years of collecting have resulted in the amassing of thousands of specimens representing hundreds of extinct species. Trilobites are his fossil, by far. In addition, he has constructed a fossil preparation lab for specimens which are worthy of exhibition and trade. He prepares specimens, both for himself and fellow fossil enthusiasts, during the winter months. But, once the snow melts, he heads back into the field for more adventures.
Hoag earned a BS in Conservation Biology from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in 2020. After graduation, he worked for two years as a fish and wildlife technician at the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation. During that time, he served aboard a research vessel which monitored the ecological health of Lake Erie by sampling fish populations. Most recently, Hoag was promoted to site manager at Penn Dixie. His new role includes management of educational staff, supervision of school field trips, leading programs, and park maintenance.
Hoag has a great appreciation for the outdoors and credits his parents for igniting his interest in hobbies such as hiking and fishing. He has been collecting fossils at Penn Dixie for 16 years having first visited the park when he was 10 years old. He has worked at Penn Dixie for 12 years, including summers between his semesters away at college and part time while employed as a fish and wildlife technician. Like Hanna, Hoag has a large fossil collection that encompasses thousands of specimens from across Western New York and beyond. Showcasing his entrepreneurial spirit, Hoag also recently formed an online business in partnership with Hanna and another friend to showcase professionally prepared fossil specimens. Hanna tells his account of collecting with Hoag:
The fossil was found in splitting down excess rock that was cut off of a prone Eldredgeops [trilobite] specimen. In digging in the Smoke Creek [trilobite beds] I came across a small prone trilobite. We then cut that prone [outstretched trilobite] off of the block it was on to create a more manageable piece. In splitting down the excess rock I discovered the carpoid and thought at first it was a cystoid [a different type of extinct echinoderm]. After sending the picture to some friends, namely [fossil expert] Dan Cooper, I was informed that it was a carpoid and that no one had heard of one from Penn Dixie. I then sent off to Dan where it was prepped.James Hanna, Educator at Penn Dixie
Cooper, a longtime HNHS/Penn Dixie member, operates a large fossil preparation facility located in the Cincinnati area. He employs several full time fossil preparators, including his son Ben, who work year round cleaning and restoring specimens sent to him by professionals and amateurs alike. Cooper’s preparation techniques significantly enhance the value of fossils by removing unwanted sediment from fossils while also repairing parts that become damaged during collection. He is also skilled in preparing specimens for scientific study – a careful, meticulous process that requires a high level of skill and attention to detail. Cooper’s work frequently becomes part of public and private collections, and he is well known in the academic and museum communities. Some of his most famous specimens are found at the Smithsonian Institution and at the American Museum of Natural History.
While awaiting the prepared specimen from Cooper, Hanna and Hoag took advantage of improving springtime weather to resume the hunt for trilobites at Penn Dixie. This time, however, luck was on Hoag’s side. He reports:
I was digging with my friend and coworker James Hanna in an area not far from where we opened our new pit [for the Dig with the Experts program]. A week earlier, James had found a carpoid in the same general location and I had an idea of what they looked like. As we were opening a new section, I broke a block…out and noticed a fossil that looked somewhat…different from the normal fossils we find. At first we thought it was a smooshed crinoid that had been broken apart before fossilization, but after looking at it for a couple minutes I knew exactly what it was. After showing James and recovering the other pieces of the carpoid that had flaked off, there was a brief celebration and high fives. Then, getting the fossil wrapped and put away so it would not get further damaged was first priority.Jonathan Hoag, Site Manager at Penn Dixie
As Hoag decided how to proceed with his specimen, Hanna heard back from Cooper. Cooper reported how Hanna’s carpoid was prepared:
I was very excited to have this specimen prepared by my son Ben. The specimen was well collected with care to retain both the positive and negative [sides of the fossil]. This is very important as once in the lab, we were able to transfer any separated pieces to the main specimen. Most of the preparation was performed with small pneumatic tools and completed with an air abrasive machine under low air pressure. All work was done using a Bosch and Lomb stereo zoom 3 microscope.Dan Cooper, Fossil Preparator
Like Hanna, Hoag decided to send his fossil to a professional preparator. He selected Malcolm S. Thornley, another longtime HNHS/Penn Dixie member who possesses advanced knowledge of fossil echinoderms from the Paleozoic Era. Thornley, a Canadian-based expert, is well known in the paleontological community for his skill in preparing invertebrate fossils for research and exhibition at museums around the world. If you’ve visited Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum then you’ve seen Thornley’s stunning work on display. With an eye trained for detail, Thornley recognized that the fossil was something special. He reported:
I have been collecting fossils at Penn Dixie since 2001 and had never heard of anyone finding a carpoid or a cystoid [related animal] at the park. In fact any relatively complete echinoderm is a rare find. As soon as I received the fossil for preparation from Jonathan, I realized it was a significant find with scientific importance.Malcolm Thornley, Fossil Preparator
Thornley’s passion for collecting and preparing echinoderm fossils made him ideally suited to provide the first independent identification of Hoag’s fossil. In addition, Thornley offered a detailed history of carpoids. He says:
While [carpoids] were common in the Ordovician and Silurian Periods, they were on the wane by the Devonian. There are very few Devonian [carpoids] described in science, and none that I was aware of from the Hamilton Formation of New York, let alone the Smoke Creek or Bayview horizons. After spending a few hours reviewing literature, I was fairly certain this was a new discovery, or at least a fossil yet to be described in the literature.Malcolm Thornley, Fossil Preparator
Thornley contacted a close colleague: Dr. Carlton Brett, a Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Cincinnati and world-renowned invertebrate paleontologist. With over 400 research publications and nearly 12,000 literature citations, Brett’s academic career is unparalleled in North American paleontology. His opinion was essential to providing confirmation of Thorney’s identification.
Incidentally, a strong connection already exists between Dr. Carlton Brett and Penn Dixie. Brett, along with his frequent collaborator Dr. Gordon Baird of SUNY Fredonia, have closely studied the geology and paleontology of Penn Dixie since the 1980s. Together they published several landmark studies which highlighted the unusually biodiverse and fossil-rich rocks at Penn Dixie. These studies are still cited by modern scientific researchers looking to answer questions about our region’s past. Brett and Baird also wrote letters to elected officials in the Town of Hamburg compelling the preservation of the Penn Dixie quarry for public education and further study. Their advocacy and support was instrumental in the formation of our organization.
After being reached by Thornley, Brett examined images of the apparent carpoid fossil and confirmed the discovery. Brett also contacted another expert, Dan Cooper, to confirm the provenance of the fossils. Provenance, which refers to the absolute confirmation of a fossil’s origin location, is a critical piece of information to establish when a discovery of this magnitude is made. Clearly moved by the puzzle pieces coming together, Brett wrote:
This is indeed an oddity. In five decades of working on Paleozoic fossils in the northeastern US, in particular, I have looked at more than 1,000 Hamilton [rock formation] localities and have never seen even a scrap of one of these. Indeed a couple of colleagues have expressed doubts that the specimen could have come from the Windom Shale, but I certainly accept that it is and from the Smoke Creek Bed, based on associated fossils and Dan Copper’s report to me of its discovery at Penn Dixie…This is definitely the most unusual occurrence from the bed that has ever been discovered.Dr. Carlton Brett, Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Cincinnati
Sentimentality for his early career discoveries is woven into Brett’s words. In discussing the fossil-hunting adventures that helped to aim his career trajectory, he refers to Penn Dixie as “our secret quarry when we were just youngsters.” Brett’s shared the reasons behind his enthusiasm for the carpoid discoveries:
I find it fascinating from the stand point of evolution as an example of long lived, but rare group which evidently made it through major mass extinctions; no one would have expected to see it turn up in the Middle Devonian. A long “ghost lineage” for which we have just these scattered records… [This new species] is some 15-20 million years [it may, in fact be ~26 million years] younger than the next youngest occurrence of the class, in the Hunsrück Slate of Germany. All parties agree that the better specimen…should become the holotype of what will most certainly be a new species and probably a new genus of carpoid.Dr. Carlton Brett, Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Cincinnati
Brett’s reference to ‘the holotype’ suggests that Hanna’s fossil will become the single type specimen representing the new species – and probably genus – that was discovered. Hoag’s fossil will provide complementary scientific data. For instance, because the fossils were found in different layers of rock, it can be established that carpoids survived through a change of environments in our region. This change could have spanned thousands or tens of thousands of years. For his role, it is proposed that the new species of carpoids will be named after Hoag. In discussing his role in the process of scientific discovery, Hoag remarks:
I feel very lucky and honored to be able to find such a cool animal. It is a groundbreaking discovery that could have been found by anyone, but we were just in the right place at the right time. The fact that I got to find it with my good friend…makes it even better. All the hours and hard work that I put into fossil hunting paid off. I’m still in disbelief that this could change the way we look at the environment that the fossils at Penn Dixie lived in. In the many years of collecting I have found some very cool and interesting fossils, but this one for sure is my favorite. I hope that researchers can use this discovery to better understand what New York during the Devonian looked like.Jonathan Hoag, Site Manager at Penn Dixie
Cooper, who has collected and prepared museum-quality fossils from around the work, was elated upon the unearthing of the second carpoid. He shared:
What makes this so unique is that it has increased the range of this family by 20 million years. What is even more astonishing is not one but two specimens were found at the same site at about the same time. This site…has been collected for hundreds of years by tens of thousands of collectors yet to this point no one else has reported this specimen. Another important note is that both of these specimens have been prepared by two different world class preparers and that will increase their value and availability to science.Dan Cooper, Fossil Preparator
The Dead Rise Again
Though they are long extinct, a bright future awaits the carpoids. Both specimens are set to become part of the permanent collections at the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) located in Ithaca, NY. PRI, which operates the Museum of the Earth, is a recognized regional and national leader in paleontology research and science education. The museum possesses over seven million fossil specimens, ranking it among the top ten largest paleontological collections in the United States. There are also six PhD-level research staff at PRI, making it the perfect place to study and store such rare specimens.
PRI will soon issue official museum numbers to the carpoids; these numbers will allow researchers from across the country to borrow and study the fossils for planned manuscripts and conference presentations. The carpoids might even make their way into a current museum exhibit at PRI – NY Rocks! Ancient Life of the Empire State – which already features a display on the fossils found at Penn Dixie. And, HNHS/Penn Dixie Executive Director Dr. Phil Stokes has been invited by PRI to speak this fall at the museum.
The first researcher to examine the carpoids in detail will be Paleontologist Dr. Ronald Parsley, Professor Emeritus, of Tulane University. Parsley, a research associate of the Smithsonian Institution, is a recognized expert in primitive echinoderms from the Paleozoic Era. He is preparing to receive the specimens this summer and begin immediate descriptive study – an uncommon ‘fast track’ of scientific research which reflects the significance of this discovery. Parsley will also take professional photographs of the specimens – a critical step for publication which will no doubt further excite the scientific community. Most likely, the carpoids will make their official debut in a national science conference — the Geological Society of America annual meeting in Pittsburgh — this fall. There’s new life in these dead!
Barbara O’Brien from The Buffalo News wrote this excellent piece that received national attention: They were looking for fossils at Penn Dixie. What they found has shocked the paleontology world
Local officials further praised the find:
The unexpected yet momentous discovery of a ‘Carpoid’ fossil at Penn Dixie Nature Preserve is just the latest example of the park’s uniqueness and a further testament to its deserving acclaim. This breakthrough finding, which has the potential to reimagine and rewrite our planet’s geological record, conveys why Penn Dixie is a destination like no other in our region. I want to extend my congratulations to the entirety of the Penn Dixie staff who helped make possible this incredible discovery.Jon D. Rivera, NYS Assemblymember
The Town of Hamburg is excited about the discoveries that happen at our beloved Penn Dixie site. Whether it is a young child discovering natural history for the first time, or an experienced researcher discovering a fossil hundreds of million years old, we are proud to support the good work of Dr. Stokes and his team. Penn Dixie has helped to put Hamburg on the map as a destination for natural history enthusiasts and inquisitive minds across the globe.Randy Hoak, Supervisor of the Town of Hamburg
This discovery is the most significant in the history of our organization, but also an incredibly special moment for science in Western New York. It is the honor of my career to be a very small part of the process that is unfolding.Phil Stokes, Geologist & Executive Director of HNHS/Penn Dixie
Special thanks to Dr. Carlton Brett, Dan Cooper, University of Arizona Paleontologist Dr. Karl Flessa, James Hanna, Jonathan Hoag, Dr. Ronald Parsley, Malcolm Thornley, and an anonymous expert for their contributions.
All images copyright 2023 Hamburg Natural History Society/Penn Dixie except for the carpoid sketch. The sketch is used under Creative Commons. Artwork by Haplochromis – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10946202