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Ghosts Unearthed: Rare ‘Lazarus Taxon’ Uncovered at Penn Dixie

Jonathan Hoag with James Hanna

Penn Dixie Fossil Park & Nature Reserve has been around since 1993. During that time, countless fossils have been unearthed, but it wasn’t until this past April that a discovery of a rare ‘Lazarus Taxon’ – two carpoid fossils – made a singular impact that would change the way that we look at this particular type of creature.

It just so happens that two off-duty members of Pen Dixie’s educational team, Jonathan Hoag and James Hanna, uncovered the well-preserved fossilized remains of an extremely rare prehistoric marine invertebrate known as a carpoid. Carpoids (extinct echinoderms) are considered a ‘Lazarus taxon’ – an animal that disappears from the fossil record, then reappears much later. The fossil remains, discovered amongst the Devonian Period rocks (dating to approximately 382 million years old) are from a small invertebrate that once lived in this region – at a time that predates the dinosaurs, and when an ancient ocean covered these lands.

Carpoids are related to living starfish, urchins, sea lilies (crinoids), and sand dollars.

What makes this discovery especially significant is that the fossils were unearthed in the Devonian Period rocks. The finding extends the geological range of the solutes (a branch of the carpoids previously thought to have gone extinct some 410 million years ago during the Early Devonian Period) by more than 25 million years!

Just think of it this way: The discovery is of two fossils of a creature that was previously thought to have gone extinct over 25 million years before the rocks at Penn Dixie were deposited.

“I feel very lucky and honored to be able to find such a cool animal,” said Jonathan Hoag, site manager at Hamburg Natural History Society/Penn Dixie. “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.”

The Penn Dixie carpoids are a ‘Lazarus taxon:’ an animal that disappears from the fossil record, then reappears much later.
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 often not found between their first and last appearance in the rock record making them a ‘ghost lineage’: they were there, but we just don’t see 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.

“This discovery is the most significant in the history of our organization, but also an incredibly special moment for science in Western New York,” said Dr. Phil Stokes, a geologist and executive director of Hamburg Natural History Society/Penn Dixie. “It is the honor of my career to be a very small part of the process that is unfolding.”

“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,” said Malcolm Thornley, an Ontario-based professional fossil preparator. “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.”

“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,” said Paleontologist Dr. Carlton Brett, a Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Cincinnati. “This is definitely the most unusual occurrence from the bed that has ever been discovered.”

“To the untrained eye, the specimen may look like Paleozoic roadkill,” said Dr. Karl Flessa, a paleontologist at the University of Arizona. “Lucky for us, Hanna and Hoag could see that what they had found was something different and something special.”

Penn Dixie Fossil Park & Nature Reserve | 4050 North St, Blasdell, NY 14219 | (716) 627-4560

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