You all know me. Know how I earn a livin’.
It’s Rutgers Week here at Off Tackle Empire. That also means that, spiritually, it is New Jersey Week. So what better way for me to break my long writing hiatus than to give you a random article on why New Jersey is a great paleontology state and one of the most historically important places to the field? None. There is in fact no better way. So hold onto your butts, I’m about to make you appreciate New Jersey from a perspective that very few do.
The year was 1838
John Estaugh Hopkins a resident of Haddonfield, New Jersey found some bones in a marl pit that was dated to the Campanian (Late Cretaceous ~80 million years ago) Woodbury Formation. He put them on display in his home and 20 years later in 1858 a man named William Parker Foulke became interested in these bones and would go on to recover the remainder of the bones in the very same marl pit. He reached out to Paleontologist Joseph Leidy of Philadelphia who would go on to formally describe the skeletal elements and named it Hadrosaurus foulkii in honor of Foulke. Hadrosaurus mean’s “bulky” or “big lizard”, but this also weirdly fits having been found in Haddonfield. So Foulke’s Big Lizard was discovered in what is now a National Historic Landmark, the Hadrosaurus foulkii Leidy Site, and Hadrosaurus would become the first mounted dinosaur skeleton ever, with reconstructed bones, and was the first dinosaur known from North America beyond a few isolated teeth. New Jersey. The Birthplace of College Football and North American Dinosaur Paleontology. Hadrosaurus is New Jersey’s state dinosaur and New Jersey was the first state to formally have one.
Theropods and Paleo Drama
New Jersey’s dinosaur heritage doesn’t stop with Hadrosaurus, however. In 1866 a theropod dinosaur (the two-legged mostly meat eaters) was discovered in New Jersey and named Laelaps aquilunguis by famous “Bone Wars” Paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope. The name Laelaps, Greek for Hurricane, turns out was already taken by a... mite. Per the rules of biological nomenclature, the first thing gets priority. So years later, he who would become Cope’s arch-rival, the other famous Bone Wars paleontologist, Othniel Charles Marsh would rename it Dryptosaurus in 1877, which means “tearing lizard.” This may have been the “first shot” in the Bone Wars drama that would ensue for decades where these two petty, destructive white men raced to one up each other in fossil discoveries, even going so far as to dynamite each other’s quarries. These actions would partially taint the public’s perception of paleontology and science for many years especially abroad... Anyway, Dryptosaurus is a Tyrannosauroid, a smaller more gracile early relative of Tyrannosaurus rex and really was the first theropod known from North America outside of teeth and footprints. In 1898 famed artist Charles R. Knight would depict Dryptosaurus in a famed painting called “Leaping Laelaps” which may have been the first paleo media depicting theropod dinosaurs as dynamic and active instead of slow tail draggers representing a more progressive scientific view as supported by prominent paleontologists of the time like Cope, Marsh, and Henry Fairfield Osborn.
But wait there’s more!
Some of my favorite vertebrate fossils to come out of New Jersey are not dinosaurs. The first mosasaur fossils that were scientifically documented from North America were from New Jersey and mosasaur fossils, though mostly fragmented, are quite common. Halisaurus a genus of small mosasaurs was also discovered in New Jersey, near Hornerstown, and this genus and its relatives are important to our understanding of mosasaur evolution as they lacked the highly specialized aquatic morphology of their larger more famous relatives like Mosasaurus and Tylosaurus.
New Jersey also had Cenozoic animals. In 1869, the same year Rutgers and Princeton played in the first College Football game, Rutgers geologists would recover a nearly complete mastodon skeleton from Mannington, NJ which is still on display in the Rutgers Geology Museum.
I also have a soft spot for Triassic reptiles, the first animals I did research on, and New Jersey certainly has a few. In 1910, the region, especially New York City was captivated by a “dinosaur skeleton” discovered in the Triassic rocks of the New Jersey Palisades along the Hudson River. This “dinosaur” turned out to be a Phytosaur, a crocodile-like animal that is an archosaur, like dinosaurs and crocodilians, but on a different part of the evolutionary tree. Also, the Triassic Icarosaurus, a tiny gliding relative of lizards is known from a single specimen from New Jersey.
For trace fossils, New Jersey preserves some of the very few known dinosaur tracks of the Eastern United States. Many of these are known from a designated National Natural Landmark, the Riker Hill Fossil Site in Essex County which preserves Late Triassic and Early Jurassic tracks. These time periods corresponds to the rise of dinosaurs in the Mesozoic. So while highly complete body fossil are rare in the Garden State, trace fossils like tracks can provide a lot of meaning about evolution and ecology and the world at the time.
Most dinosaurs and other vertebrate fossils known from North America are recovered from the Western half of the United States and Canada. This is because of the simple reality of exposure. The west is more open and more desert. The eastern half of the U.S. which most certainly houses an equal amount of fossils and dinosaurs as the West simply lacks the exposure. It’s too green. Too much cover and much more densely populated. Whole suburbs and forests could be covering brilliant fossils. It’s unfortunate, but it’s just the way it is, so we rely on fossils from places like New Jersey to provide what we do understand about this ancient world’s eastern North American landmass, called Appalachia. And for a small state that has been mostly underwater prior to the modern, New Jersey has provided a surprising amount of natural history information.
Also, I should probably give some love to non-vertebrate fossils. These happen to be about 5 minutes away from where I grew up— Sussex County, New Jersey has stromatolite fossils that are about 500 million years old. Much older than the dinosaurs found in the state. There are truly so many geologic time periods in such a tiny state, especially in the Northern half, it really is a wonder.
Paleontological Attractions in and near New Jersey
So the next time you travel to a home Rutgers game, or New Jersey for any other reasons consider visiting the following as they all house iconic New Jersey fossils:
Rutgers Geology Museum, New Brunswick
New Jersey State Museum, Trenton
Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia
American Museum of Natural History, NYC
Anyway... Happy Rutgers Week! Hope you learned some things.