Mike Shute 2018-01-09 23:41:28
Dr. Ken Lacovara has traveled the world in the name of science, but he foresees a time in the very near future where the science world will be traveling to South Jersey. Lacovara is the founding dean of Rowan University’s school of Earth and Environment, grew up in Linwood, attended Mainland High School and earned his undergrad degree at Rowan (then-Glassboro State College) in 1984. In 2014 in the Patagonia region of Argentina, he led the team that unearthed Dreadnoughtus, one of the largest land animals that ever lived -- 85 feet long, 30 feet tall, 130,000 pounds and still growing when it died. Lacovara has literally “dug holes all over the world.” But now, as Rowan University embarks on the development of its Jean & Ric Edelman Fossil Park located in Mantua Township just off Woodbury- Glassboro Road at Route 55’s exit 53 behind Lowe’s Home Improvement store, Lacovara says it will become an international destination for those interested in discovering the days of the dinosaurs. “We’ve already had people coming from all over the world to visit the Fossil Park for our events,” said Lacovara, who serves as a professor of paleontology and geology at Rowan and is also the Director of the Edelman Fossil Park. “We have people coming from Britain and California, we’ve had two sets of families drive all night from Michigan and drive up from Georgia and New England. It will become an international tourist attraction right here in Mantua Township in South Jersey. It’s really going to put that municipality on the map and it’s actually going to make this area famous once again for its dinosaurs.” Digging up the past Lacovara says the region will become famous “again,” because South Jersey has long been known as a hotbed of dinosaur discovery, particularly from the mid-to-late 1800s into the early 1900s. The area specifically in western South Jersey following along the New Jersey Turnpike from roughly the Freehold area to the Delaware Memorial Bridge was extremely rich in dinosaur discoveries. The world’s first discovered tyrannosaur -- called Dryptosaurus -- was found in Ceres Park in Mantua Township in 1866 and the world’s first mostly complete dinosaur skeleton -- Hadrosaurus -- was unearthed in Haddonfield in 1868. Other discoveries occurred at Mill Pond in Mullica Hill, in Swedesboro and Pedricktown, including the Mosasaur which can be found in the Academy of Natural Science in Philadelphia. “The South Jersey area has two of the three important ingredients (for discovery),” said Lacovara. “First of all, it has rocks of the right age… so if you’re interested in dinosaurs, you have to find rocks that were laid down in the Mesozoic Era (about 252 million to 66 million years ago). In western South Jersey, the rocks that we live on are from the Cretaceous period (the latter half of time in the Mesozoic Era). “Next, (those rocks) are sedimentary rocks, so that means you can form a fossil. You can’t have a fossil even if you have rocks of the right age, if it’s igneous rocks, formed by a volcano or metamorphous rocks, rocks that have been heated and squeezed. “Then usually the third thing you like to have is to have those rocks exposed in a desert or in a badlands so you get good rates of erosion that push back the hillsides and expose new (dirt, rocks) all the time. “We obviously don’t have that in this region,” Lacovara continued, “so the way dinosaurs were discovered here in the past, is that there are ocean deposits from the Cretaceous, that’s what farmers call marl, like in the names of Marlton and Marlboro. Marl is a really good fertilizer -- an organic fertilizer -- particularly for acid-loving plants like tomatoes. So every farmer that lives on these marl deposits could dig their own marl pits for fertilizer. So there used to be, literally, thousands of these marl pits, across New Jersey and up and down the east coast and that was really the heyday of dinosaur discovery.” However in the 1930s, with the onset of synthetic and factory-made fertilizers beginning to boom, it became cheaper and easier for farmers to simply purchase fertilizer than to dig it up themselves, resulting in most of these marl pits becoming abandoned. “That’s why in New Jersey, so many of the old municipal parks we see, there are a series of a half a dozen ponds or so, these are the abandoned marl pits,” said Lacovara. “And so, dinosaur discoveries pretty much dried up except for at the site where we now have the Edelman Fossil Park.” Fossil future Rowan University purchased the 65- acre property of the Edelman Fossil Park, formerly a quarry owned by the Inversand Company for mining marl, in September 2015. Just over a year later, Rowan alumni Jean and Ric Edelman announced that they would be making a gift of $25 million to their alma mater to “transform the Rowan University Fossil Park into a world-class destination for scientific discovery and citizen science.” Ric Edelman told Rowan Magazine: “Instead of thinking small, this project needs to be developed on a grand scale rivaling the major museums in the country. We want the Fossil Park to be a world-class destination for families.” According to the rowan.edu website, the gift from the Edelmans is the largest ever from Rowan alumni and the second largest gift in the institution’s history. Ric is a 1980 Rowan graduate and Jean earned her degree there in 1981. The couple married a year later. They are the founders of Edelman Financial Services, based in Fairfax, Va. “It’s not just a game changer,” Lacovara said of the Edelmans’ gift, “it’s a whole new game! Before, there were struggles to try and preserve this property, then after the Edelman gift, we knew not only were we going to be able to preserve this property but we were going to be able to build an amazing museum there that would allow for public access and bring this story and the amazing educational opportunities to everyone who is interested. It’s amazing what the Edelmans have done. It’s really nice that they are alumni of the university and it’s very satisfying to be able to work with two other alums to build this amazing thing at our university.” Looking forward, plans for the Edelman Fossil Park include a museum and visitor center that Lacovara foresees being open seven days a week throughout the year, laboratory spaces, a nature trail, a paleontology-themed playground, and social spaces. Lacovara projects the facility should open full-scale in about three years. The wildly popular annual community and school Dig Days at the site will continue. In fact, the Community Dig Days, which allow for the first 2,000 registrants to come on the property and dig for their own fossils, usually fill up all of their allotted reservations in about 20 minutes. The facility’s sixth annual event was held this past September. And there is a waiting list of 450 schools that would like to visit the property for class trips, which are available Fridays throughout the spring. “We have literally millions of fossils on the property and there are two layers there that we collect fossils from,” Lacovara said. “One layer is a research layer at the bottom of the quarry. Then, above that, we have roughly 25 vertical feet of sediment along the quarry walls that are full of fossils and we can let visitors collect from those layers.” Lacovara sees fossils as a way to break through to a person’s mindset, particularly kids. “Everyone that comes to this place who tries a little bit and isn’t afraid to get dirty finds a 65 million-year- old fossil of their own that they can take home. That is the transformational experience for kids. You can get a kid hooked on science through fossils when they’re young and what you’re really doing is inculcating them with the scientific method. Once you get that in your head and once that’s how you think, that’s how you think. Then you can go on and apply those tools for receiving info and processing it in a rational way and asking questions about your world.” To get more insight from Lacovara about dinosaurs and how learning from the past helps to understand the present world, look for his book, Why Dinosaurs Matter, published in September 2017. To get on a mailing list to be informed about upcoming public events at the Edelman Fossil Park, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find more info on the web at www.rowan.edu/fossils/ and follow the Edelman Fossil Park on Facebook: www.facebook.com/EdelmanFossilPark and on Twitter: @EdelmanFossilPK.
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