Martha’s Vineyard’s National Fossil Day 2023 brought paleontologists, geologists, and citizen scientists to the Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs for two afternoons the last weekend in September. Hundreds of people came.
At this annual event, there is always something new to learn, see, and do. Here you have the opportunity to look, hold, and ask questions of an expert.
This year, paleontologist Jessica Utrip from the Yale Peabody Museum brought fossils inspired by the Misissipian-age shark skull, larger than Jaws, found at Mammoth Cave and featured on this year’s National Park Service’s Fossil Day Poster. That made me curious about how new fossils are identified.
Utrip said, “Paleontologists are grand puzzle masters who take all the pieces available and try to figure out what something looked like 130 million years ago. Sometimes you can’t. Paleontological problematica are how unidentified fossil organisms — ones that can’t be classified — are described.” Utrip opened a book to show me the Tullimonstrum gregarium, a wild-looking creature with eyes waving off the sides of its body and a huge claw rising out of the top of its head. It looks like something out of an alien monster movie. Is this where movie monster designers get their ideas?
A highlight for avocational Island geologist Bart Jarek, a co-producer of this event, was: “Sunday afternoon, when a crowd of children gathered around me with rapt attention to witness the tapping open of a locally found mudstone, revealing for the first time to human eyes the perfect carbon imprints of an Upper Cretaceous ‘dinosaur leaf.’ The children “ooo’d” in unison, then rolled on their sides down the grassy hill in excitement, haha! The delightful clamor of dozens of children for hours signified the rousing success of this year’s annual event.”
Jarek’s exhibit of diverse local specimens found exclusively on the Island took up the entire stage. Children and adults enjoyed his collection of iron concretions that looked like you could uses them as pots for paint, pieces of mudstones imprinted with fossilized wood, leaf, and cretaceous pine cones, Miocene marine fossils, gleaming pyrite balls, and a stacked ancient whale vertebrae “pagoda.” His dissecting microscope allowed visitors to inspect specimens more closely.
“On Saturday, it rained, and there were about 50 children in this room, who’d dragged their parents and grandparents here, and it was Bart who enthralled them,” Alia Munley, development and education associate at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, said. Munley brought fossils and a mini dig site, including homemade salt dough dinosaur imprints. The dig site was a huge hit. While we were talking, Munley mentioned that the museum wants homeschoolers to know the museum is available to help.
Salt dough also makes wonderful ornaments. Basic salt dough recipe: 2 cups whole wheat flour, 1 cup of salt, ¾ cup water, and bake at 170° for about an hour, or until hard when you press them.
The Island is where a glacier stopped and left us with the wide variety of rocks and minerals it picked up while crossing the mainland. Geologist Bill Willcox’s exhibit made me want to join him on an Island walk. I think the museum should have an area dedicated to geology.
Professor Robin Kolnicki from Framingham State’s exhibit about protozoa microbe fossils and the conditions that support life led to conversations about the importance of microbiology and taking care of the microbiomes in our guts. Professor Kolnicki’s friend, Cherie Dennard, a flutist, and her husband, performer, recording artist, and retired Berklee professor, percussionist, singer, and keyboardist, Kenwood Dennard played.
When asked what she found most interesting, Allison Dubinsky, visiting from Santa Fe, N.M., remarked, “Seeing dinosaur hunter Dr. Henry Kreigstein’s fossils. You don’t expect to see fossils like his. He said the private market for the fossils of fiercer meat-eating predators is hot, and plant eaters don’t have much value. Most of the big collectors are men who want the big and fierce specimens. They don’t want to display a gentle creature. That’s interesting.”
It takes a team to make a great event. Well done and thank-yous to Alia Munley, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum; paleontologist Jessica Utrip, Yale Peabody Museum; paleobiologist Fred Hotchkiss, MPRI; forester/naturalist Bob Woodruff; dinosaur finder and expert Dr. Henry Kriegstein; shellfish expert Rick Karney; paleontologist Charlie Shabica; visionary biologist Dr. Robin Kolnicki; Oak Bluffs library children’s assistant Mary Jane Aldrich-Moody; avocational local geologist Bart Jarek; geologist Bill Willcox; Grace Scarano, and the Preservation Trust. For those who couldn’t make it, don’t miss it next year.