by Erik Baard
He walked up from below the high water mark beside the old seaplane ramp at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn and called out, “That’s it! New York City is done!”
Not comforting words from a man who measures time in mass extinctions. Paleontologist Carl Mehling is one of many native New Yorkers struggling at the fringes of our city’s constant reinvention and real estate development to preserve glimpses of life from earlier eras. As collections manager for fossil amphibians, reptiles, and birds at the American Museum of Natural History, Mehling went on a personal quest to be the first person to discover naturally occurring fossils in all five boroughs in one year.
In his hand that November day he held a piece of chert, a smooth rock that in this case looked like caramel. On its surface were pinholes that a magnifying lens revealed were ringed by radiating spokes. “There’s no ambiguity. That’s a crinoid,” a starfish cousin, Mehling said. The cluster of crinoids that left traces in this stone probably lived about 380 million years ago, he said.
Earlier fossil finds include a brachiopod and a bryozoan (a shellfish and a creature resembling coral, respectively) in a Riverdale Park streambed in the Bronx, another brachiopod or bivalve on a tiny Inwood Hill Park beach in Manhattan, and scallops and oysters on Rockaway Beach in Queens. Conference House Park on Staten Island yielded favositid corals, more crinoids, brachiopods, and bryozoans.
Mehling targets often forgotten shorelines because “there no buildings and no sidewalks and no streets. They’re remnants of what might have been there a hundred years ago.” When we arrived at one prospective site on Jamaica Bay to find that it had been recently bulkheaded, he remarked, “This is the worst place on Earth to look. It’s so depressing.”
In addition to field prospecting, Mehling is compiling a list of all of the fossils discovered in New York City from academic sources. Many can’t be traced today, even the mastodon bone that was dredged from the East River shoreline of Long Island City when Standard Oil built a barge slip a century ago. It hung in a nearby shop window for years before vanishing. Central Staten Island holds rich reserves of fossilized Cretaceous plants that grew when dinosaurs reigned, but they’ve been paved over in recent decades. “There are parts of Staten Island that, if I heard that there was construction starting, I would be out there in an hour.”
He’s often in a rush. “I deal in millions of years but always feel I have to be a half-hour early. As if it matters,” he remarked. Actually, it did, one day in August when he tackled Queens and Staten Island, with some Nature Calendar people in tow. We had to race to sites before our quarry was covered by the rising tide.
An hour later I was scratching around stones jutting from a red clay shoreline bluff near Conference House Park, hoping in vain to loosen something interesting…if I could recognize it. Mehling was yards behind me on the beach, casually picking up Devonian fossils like sea glass. If a rock looked promising but showed no micro-fossils on its surface, Mehling would smash it open with a larger rock. Jill Palermo of WeAddUp.com and Queens Community Board 2 environmental chairperson Dorothy Morehead came along and had the good sense to stick with him, not me.
“This is coral, hundreds of millions of years old. If this fossil is as old as I think it is, this place was below the equator when it was living,” he said. “It’s moved a lot, and it’s been through hell.” He also found sea shells from the same period. Still, he’s not very excited by his finds, dismissing them as “invasive species” transported by the glaciers that ground their way down the continent, and therefore not much better than the fossils one can find in the imported stone that make up the Rockefeller Center façade or the walls of the Sherry-Netherland Hotel.
In the Rockaways, Kelly Rimshnick is ankle deep in water not far from her kids as we scour the intertidal zone. “Are you looking for something dangerous?,” she nervously asked.
Three of us turned up oysters that Mehling said were merely “12,000 years old, tops. They’re the same species that you find here today.” Mehling, who discovered in Patagonia, Argentina the first fossilized fetal dinosaur skin, says globally these fossils are “as common as pigeons.” Still, he’s excited. “These are native, they are really from this place. In that sense these are real rarities, the stuff I like. That’s why I love to hunt in New York City, because fossils are not supposed to be here.”
That’s as much a state of mind as physical reality. As an urban forager, Mehling is used to eating meals of delicious plants that others pass by. But New York City is also truly a lousy place to find fossils. Our bedrock was produced in a fossil-erasing lathe of geologic forces, not gentle sedimentation. Worse yet, “If all the manmade stuff was taken off of Manhattan it would be just a big rock. It’s been stripped.”
Mehling dreams of finding an unlucky mastodon, caught in bogs during the glacial thaw. Short of that, Mehling plans to kick continue kicking over stones in Inwood Hill Park and Central Park (and check this site too), along the Bronx River and in Van Cortlandt Park with very humble expectations. “This is the lowest form of fossil hunting,” he said. “The lowest, but done with high hopes.”
The challenges don’t stop eager local amateurs from frequently bringing in egg-shaped stones for him to inspect. “I have to explain that there are many ways nature can produce that shape. Not every round stone flew out of a dinosaur’s ass.”