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Paleontologists hunt for mystery fossil

The mystery fossil found in Interlaken, left, and what it may have been 375 million years ago: a branching glass sponge, depicted in a scientific illustration from the 1870 Challenger expedition   

April 15, 1999
Web posted at: 3:30 PM EDT

Cornell University paleontologists are tracking unusual samples of an unidentified 375 million-year-old species in upstate New York and northern Pennsylvania.

Dating to the Devonian geological period, when an inland sea covered much of what is now the Northeast United States, the fossils are roughly the size and shape of a human hand. Some are made of black, glassy material while others are tan to brown in color.

"We could be looking at the root of a branching glass sponge, something like later glass-sponge fossils reported in Pennsylvania and New York," says Cornell paleontologist John Chiment, who is leading the search. "The tops of branching glass sponges are known from the Devonian period, but they've been missing from the fossil record ever since. Or, this could be a very different organism that is unknown to science."

The only living example of a branching glass sponge was hauled from the ocean depths off the Philippines in 1870 by the crew of the British Challenger expedition, the first around-the-world oceanographic survey. Not a single branching glass sponge has been found since. Sponges dating from 300 million years ago have been found in New York and Pennsylvania, but they are different from the one just found.

"For all we know, today's deep ocean may have plenty of branching glass sponges," says Cornell paleontologist Sande Burr. Sponges have skeletons made of one of three kinds of materials -- silica glass, calcium carbonate or the protein of bath sponges. "Sponge fishermen who drag the deep ocean for more attractive glass sponges, like the Venus flower basket, may be throwing back branching glass sponges because they have no economic value," she says. "They're probably pretty ugly."

The fossils were buried about 15 feet deep and were found by workers digging for a gasoline tank in Interlaken, N.Y. Cornell students in Geology 106, Chiment's class in fossil preparation, are extracting glassy black structures from the Interlaken boulders, and would like to find some more.

"Potentially, we're looking everywhere from northern Pennsylvania through central and western New York to the Great Lakes," Chiment says. "But we'd like to be surprised. We don't even know for sure what this thing is. We just know that it deserves a place in the fossil record, and we need some help putting it there."

Copyright 1999, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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Cornell University
Paleontological Research Institute
Porifera Sponges, University of California, Berkeley
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