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The Trouble with Fossils

By Virgil G. Richards

President, Tulsa Rock and Mineral Society

July 18th, 2005


In April of this year members of the Tulsa Rock and Mineral Society were treated to a rare opportunity. Recent highway and private construction had once again unearthed a trove of carbon film plant fossils of Pennsylvanian age in the Seminole Formation of Northeast Oklahoma, near Tulsa. By “rare opportunity,” I mean that this is only the second time since the early 1970s that this particular formation and its hidden, yet fragile, history have seen daylight. The last time was nearly four years prior at the same locality when private construction bisected the formation underlying the Checkerboard Limestone and Coffeyville Formations (Bennison, 1972).

After hearing of the site and the presence of the fossils, I took the opportunity to assess the feasibility of setting up a field trip to the locality for club members. A preliminary survey of portions of the site verified that there were ample specimens available. Additionally, my preliminary survey introduced me to one of the property owners of the private construction project adjacent to the highway expansion and improvement. With proper permission obtained, we quickly organized a field trip for club members for the following weekend.

The next Saturday found approximately a dozen members at the site ready to collect. A construction supervisor who happened to be working the site was helpful in quickly preparing a portion of the rich fossil layer by ripping several trenches across the main layers, exposing thousands of fresh plant fossils for us to collect. Carbon film comprised the bulk of the fossils recovered; however, there were several other types of trace fossils in evidence. One of these was a nice specimen of a calamites cast in the shale member of the formation representing the upper Seminole (Bennison, 1972). There is some controversy as to whether the cast represents the actual growth habit of the calamites, or a slump feature of the sediments in which it was buried. As the specimen was found in a living position, this may be a difficult issue to resolve. Other representative specimens include carbonized wood and transitional fossils from the contact zone of the upper Seminole Formation and Checkerboard Limestone member.

One of the problems with the fossils of the Seminole Formation is lack of durability. Specimens are subject to rapid deterioration and desiccation from moisture content changes due to exposure to air. Too much moisture, and the shale matrix quickly becomes so much mush; too little moisture, and it crumbles to dust. Either extreme means the fossils are lost forever. The carbon films are fragile, yet amazingly detailed in their preservation, representing a tropical forest floor nearly three hundred million years old. More than forty species of plants are identified in the fossil layers of the Seminole Formation (Bennison, 1972).

By now you may be wondering about the title of this article, “The Trouble with Fossils.” So begins the seemingly unending saga of how a perceived public interest story can go strangely awry. In early June I was contacted by a local television news journalist interested in doing a story on the fossils for the local evening broadcast. After consideration and a couple of phone calls, I agreed -- along with other members -- to grant an interview and allow them to photograph some of the specimens recovered from the site. This all seemed innocent enough and seemed to go smoothly at the time. I’m not sure how to relate what happened after the story aired that evening… I had no concept of what would happen within days of the broadcast. By the start of a new week, I was hearing rumors of problems with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) closing the site to public access and telling everyone to stay away from the construction areas. ODOT issued a statement citing public safety as their primary concern for the site closure. I soon found out why.  After the news story aired, it seems the general public developed a hunger for fossils, and a feeding frenzy ensued.  Children were left unsupervised in an active construction site, grown men were fighting over fossils, and common sense or good judgment were generally lacking from the public.

Upon hearing of the site closure, I immediately contacted the Project Engineer who had issued the statement, in order to clear up a few misconceptions regarding the club's collecting activity at the site. I spent several hours conversing with the project engineer, ODOT’s environmentalist, and their public relations department to mend fences. I granted a subsequent interview to another local television station in an effort to get the message across regarding the public safety concerns and my agreement with ODOT’s decision to make the site off-limits. This was not to be the case, however. When the second interview aired it was cut to thirty seconds, and the issue was now a “Fight Over Fossils” and a disagreement between ODOT and myself.  Go figure -- more than thirty minutes of footage stressing public safety and my agreement with ODOT was left on the cutting room floor.

Back to the phone and I once again apologized to ODOT for a misrepresented point of view. Ultimately, this led to a formal meeting between myself, ODOT officials, members of the Tulsa Rock and Mineral Society, local educators, and representatives of The Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (at the request of ODOT’s environmentalist). At this meeting we discussed our role in the collection and preservation of specimens from this site, the validity of our interests, and the educational and scientific importance of the collection and preservation of these fragile fossils.

Following the meeting we reassembled at the construction site for a firsthand assessment and clarification of where the original collection had taken place (which, incidentally, was determined to be exactly as we stated: on private property adjacent to ODOT’s jurisdiction). We were escorted to the construction site, where another local collector and I assisted members of the Sam Noble team in determining the feasibility of doing a vertical section study of the exposed Seminole Formation. It was determined that there was enough interest to arrange a study to be done.

The following weekend found us back at the site to observe the Sam Noble team as they prepared a vertical section study and collected representative specimens from the approximate twenty-meter exposure. We also took the opportunity to do some further collecting of our own, as this would be the last opportunity to do so before completion of the project. ODOT had also arranged for their own photographer to be present to document the study and collection of specimens. As a side note here, I should mention that this study was taking place on Father’s Day, and it was very gracious of ODOT to arrange to be there and permit the study and collection. Several ODOT officials and personnel were present for most of the day, and my thanks go out to them.

It would seem that what began as a public interest story and morphed into a perceived controversy has ultimately led to an exciting and continuing working relationship between the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, Tulsa Rock and Mineral Society, and the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.  As of this writing two major specimens from my own collection are at Division VIII headquarters for a photography session. A lengthy article and photo-essay is planned for ODOT’s internal publication, which has a statewide distribution. I am excited about the future of our relationship with ODOT in regard to collecting activities on state owned highway construction sites. As long as the guidelines are followed, we can expect full cooperation when a site of interest is identified.

Please observe these recommendations and requirements when you visit such sites.
"Highway construction zones are not open access. Proper permissions MUST BE OBTAINED before entering any construction area. Young children should never be allowed to wander about unsupervised, common sense and good judgment has to prevail. Even with permission, safety regulations MUST BE FOLLOWED! Always wear a hardhat when required (which generally means anytime there is equipment or other overhead hazard above four feet high). Wear hard-toed shoes or boots; never wear open-toed shoes such as sandals. Wear eye protection whenever you are using hammers or hand tools. In construction areas, ALWAYS wear a safety vest (these can be had at various places -- check your local home improvement store or farm supply), which is either bright orange or fluorescent yellow, with reflective striping. This allows others to see you from a greater distance, and in the event there is equipment working, it could save a life or prevent serious injury. Did you know that one of those large earth-movers when fully loaded, and at it’s top speed of around 40 mph or so, may need ¼ mile or more to stop?”

Here is a number to call before entering any highway construction area in Oklahoma:

ODOT Public Affairs
(918) 838-9933 X370

They can help you get in contact with the proper people to get permission and or make arrangements for a group to visit a site.



Bennison, A. P. 1972, “Fossil Plants of the Seminole Formation (Pennsylvanian) in Tulsa County , Oklahoma ” by L. R. Wilson, in A.P. Bennison, W.V. Knight, W.B. Creath, R.H. Dott, and C.L. Hayes, eds. Tulsa ’s physical environment – a symposium: Tulsa Geological Society Digest, v. 37, p. 51-61



Virgil G. Richards







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