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Finding a Fossil Fragment

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Not all fossil discoveries take place at far-flung locations. During the summer of 2015, paleontologist Carl Mehling was leading a group of Museum Members on a fossil-finding trip to Big Brook, New Jersey’s famous Late Cretaceous site. That's where 13-year-old Braden Vande Plasse showed him a small piece he’d found. At first, says Mehling, he was ready to dismiss it as “just a rock,” but a closer look revealed “a very clear biological structure.”

Carl Mehling Big Brook
Carl Mehling (right) examines a fossil found by Museum Member Braden Vande Plasse.
© K. Vande Plasse

“My gut was leaning towards a bone or some other vertebrate structure,” said Mehling, who’s been collecting fossils in the area since 1988 but found himself stumped as to what kind of animal this fossil may have come from. “I asked Braden if he would be willing to donate to the Museum—and thankfully, he was.”

Back at the Museum, the investigation began. Since fishes are the most common vertebrate fossils at Big Brook, Mehling first turned to Curator John Maisey, an expert on fossil fishes. With a quick look under a dissecting microscope, Dr. Maisey confirmed the piece was a tooth or a tooth plate. A comment from Maisey’s Ph.D. student Allison Bronson led Mehling to realize that the tooth plate might belong to a Mesozoic lungfish—and after consulting the Museum’s collection of fossil lungfish teeth, he decided there were some good matches to this new fossil.

Mehling Lungfish Fossil
Close-up of the as yet unidentified fish fossil.

But several days later, a serendipitous email from a Texas researcher concerning a different fossil specimen—one that bore a strong resemblance to the Big Brook find—led Mehling to a different conclusion: Vande Plasse’s fossil was likely a fragment of a tooth plate from some as-yet unidentified, likely marine, Cretaceous fish rather than a lungfish. Mehling is currently preparing a paper that may help him find other experts to identify the find.

Have you found an interesting rock, feather, or other object, but aren't quite sure what it is? Visit the Museum this Saturday, May 7 for Identification Day. Scientists from a variety of disciplines will attempt to identify your discoveries while showing you some specimens from the Museum's rarely seen collections. 

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of the Member magazine Rotunda.