TRENTON — The New Jersey State Museum hopes to forge an unusual relationship with commercial fishermen from Cape May, Atlantic and Ocean counties.
David Parris, curator of natural history, wants local clam and scallop fishermen to keep the museum in mind if they pull up any fossils in their dredges.
“They’re actually fairly commonly found,” Parris said. “Every year someone reports a mastodon tooth or a walrus. We’re very grateful to anyone who would help.”
Barnegat Light Mayor Kirk O. Larson said he saw a few when he used to fish 20 miles off Atlantic City. His dredge picked up some unusual things, including a 35-foot torpedo.
“All we saw was the propeller,” Larson said. “We got the torch out and cut the chain and let it go. It didn’t blow up.”
The crew sometimes fought over the occasional fossil or lobster. Boat policy gave the find to whichever person claimed it first. The fossils were easy to spot among the rocks and scallops, Larson said.
“We used to get nice mammoth tusks,” he said. “Monstrous mastodon teeth.”
The museum is home to many New Jersey fossils, including those of a marine reptile called a mososaur with a skull as big as a trash can. But many of the fossils could easily be mistaken for ordinary rocks.
Fossils are a commodity. Upper Township resident Joseph Camburn, an amateur fossil hunter, bought several mastadon teeth from a commercial fisherman. He also has a partial walrus skull pulled from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
“They’re not going to be worth a million dollars, but a couple hundred,” Camburn said.
“Sometimes the finds are surprising,” Parris said.”For instance, an attorney walked into one of my public programs and said, ‘I found this on a beach in Ocean County.’”
It was a vertebra from a giant ground sloth — only the fourth specimen ever found in New Jersey.
“The average person probably wouldn’t recognize it as a fossil,” Parris said.
Most of the museum’s treasures are tucked in storage behind the exhibit galleries. Mounted specimens such as a jackrabbit and harbor seal sit next to fossils galore — including many Ice Age specimens such as woolly mammoths and mastodons.
New Jersey was home to both 14,000 years ago during the last Ice Age. Back then, New Jersey was twice its present size. Walruses, mammoths and caribou wandered the coastline 70 miles east of Atlantic City.
Some of these animals were preserved in mud when they died, only to be dug up eons later in the steel dredges of clam and scallop boats.
A museum map shows dozens of offshore locations where fossils were found. The locations are approximate since dredges typically cover miles before hauling their catch to the surface, and boat captains are careful not to reveal their best fishing spots, Parris said.
“They keep coming. Every year people find more,” he said. “Many of the fishermen, I’m sure, probably have collections of their own, such as whale bones. We’re very gratified when people call them to our attention. We’re particularly gratified if they donate them to us, because they are documents of the Ice Age.”
Scallopers still represent one of the few sources of marine fossils for any museum. Parris said there is simply no easy way to find them.
Paleontologist Rodrigo Pellegrini catalogues and prepares fossils for exhibit at the museum. He said dredge fossils often have barnacle-like attachments called bryozoans that indicate they were found in a saltwater environment.
Individual teeth or bones might not seem like much. But some of the bones tell their own stories. Studying a mastodon tooth, the museum found its roots were compacted, suggesting the animal probably suffered from a toothache.
“We can paint a better picture of what life was like then,” Pellegrini said.
Contact Michael Miller: