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VMNH team is hurrying to remove quarry fossils
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Virginia Museum of Natural History Curator of Paleontology Alton “Butch” Dooley holds a fossilized rock specimen of Tanytrachelos, a small aquatic reptile species from the Triassic period, about 225 million years ago. The fossil was discovered at the former Virginia Solite Co. quarry at Cascade. (Bulletin photos by Mickey Powell)

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

A team from the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) is rushing to finish removing fossil beds from a Southside rock quarry that inadvertently became a major scientific repository.

VMNH scientists have dug for fossils at the former Virginia Solite Co. quarry at Cascade, just across the Virginia state line from Eden, N.C., since the late 1980s. The quarry has since attracted scientists from around the world.

Ararat Rock Products of Mount Airy, N.C., recently acquired the quarry and plans to expand mining operations there, according to Alton “Butch” Dooley, the Martinsville museum’s paleontology curator.

So “we want to save as much (of the fossil beds) as we can, as fast as we can,” Dooley said. He predicted that “these sites are going to be lost pretty quickly if we don’t go in and recover them” now.

A $9,500 grant from the National Geographic Society will cover the cost of the excavation work, which began Saturday, he said.

Over the years, Dooley said, the quarry became “a really important, unique site” for natural historians who have found “thousands upon thousands” of fossils dating to the Triassic period, roughly 250 to 200 million years ago. That is around the time of the first dinosaurs and mammals.

Ancient species discovered at the quarry have included Tanytrachelos, a long-necked reptile, and Mecistotrachelos, a small gliding reptile. They also have included freshwater fish, plant and insect fossils.

Right now, the latter probably is of most interest to researchers because “insect fossils from this period are pretty rare,” Dooley said. He estimated that fossils of 15 to 20 ancient insects have been found at the quarry.

He said the quarry is “probably the best, most significant (fossilized) insect facility in the world.”

Because it basically is in the museum’s backyard, scientists want to collect all they can from it.

About 10 people from the museum, including scientists and volunteers, are taking part in the “salvage operation” at the quarry, Dooley said.

The excavation will focus on insect beds and is anticipated to continue on Saturdays for about a month, he said. They can only go into the quarry on Saturdays when it is shut down, he pointed out.

Using a jackhammer to split rock, they intend to remove about 20 square meters of the beds, put the beds in crates and bring them to the museum, where they will turn the shale on its end and split it into thin sheets before examining it, he explained.

Some of the richest reptile and fish fossil beds have been found on top of the insect beds, so those will be removed, too, Dooley said.

“We know there is stuff in” the beds that is noteworthy, he said. They just don’t know what it is yet.

Examining the beds will take time, so Dooley could not anticipate how long it will be before team members know what significant fossils they find.

That is, unless the fossils are practically “staring us in the face,” which is highly unlikely, he said.

He mentioned he is grateful that Ararat Rock is allowing the museum to excavate.

“There’s nothing that obligates them to let us in at all,” Dooley said.

Accommodating the museum actually is “problematic for” the company, he added, because it must provide safety training for museum representatives before they start digging and bring staff in on Saturdays to let them in.

Ararat Rock has told museum officials it is willing to work with them if future mining operations reveal other potential fossil beds, Dooley said.


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