Welcome to our latest paleo-interview! We’re pleased to announce this one is with avocational paleontologist and expert fossil-finder, Jason Kowinsky. Jayson is the creator of the popular website FossilGuy.com and a long-time contributor to paleontological discoveries and education. We greatly appreciate his sharing a few of his insights with us in this interview.
(1) When did you first get interested in fossils and paleontology?
I suppose my interest started as a kid. While exploring the nearby woods, I would often find chunks of rock with preserved sea shells and tiny disks in them. I would always look in those little rocks in hopes of finding a giant 100-foot-long dinosaur! These little rocks would later prove to be rocks from a locally famous unit, laden with brachiopods and crinoid pieces, called the Ames Limestone. Luckily, as a kid, I didn’t know the Ames Limestone is hundreds of millions of years older than any dinosaur.
My interest really began to grow in college. One day I was on some hiking paths near my college and found some slightly larger fossils (larger than brachiopods). I spent weeks trying to get them identified, to no avail. Finally, I decided to simply buy a domain name and post pictures of the fossils there, then email a link to the pictures.
Domains were cheap and readily available back in the year 2000! With very little thought, I haphazardly picked “fossilguy.com” as the domain. After my initial post on “fossilguy.com,” other people began to email me about their own fossils, as there weren’t really any fossil sites on the internet at that time. Soon, I was identifying other people’s fossils, making friends, and exploring fossil sites across the country! I was hooked!
Now that I think of it, no one ever did identify my original fossil! After years of experience, I ended up identifying it myself.
(2) What do you enjoy the most about paleontology?
What I enjoy most about paleontology is that none of these ancient ecosystems exist today. As a science guy, I love playing detective and looking at actual fragments of preserved life and trying to piece together what life was like back then and why evolution took the course it did.
A good example is a little fossil site in Pennsylvania called Red Hill. Some of the world’s earliest tetrapods (four legged animals) are found here. By fossil collecting and studying some of the fossils at the site, one quickly realizes these animals didn’t appear out of nowhere. There is a myriad of preserved little shallow ponds and streams crisscrossing the rock units. Lots of fossil vegetation is also preserved in the streams. These would be tough places to swim. In fact, some of the fish fossils have the beginnings of limb bones and finger digits. In order to push through the muck and debris, fish fins were turning into feet! The line between fish and tetrapods begin to blur at Red Hill. It takes no leap in logic to see why some of the first tetrapods are found here.
I also enjoy going to new places and looking for things that have never seen the light of day in millions of years. In paleontology, the chance of discovering something new to science is always there. There’s not many other fields where an amateur can make an important discovery. Every month or so, I notice a really neat discovery made by amateur fossil hunters.
(3) What’s your favorite fossil and why?
My favorite fossil is a Squalodon, or a shark-toothed whale. It’s a very primitive form of whale that retained allot of features from the older Archaeoceti. The blowhole was not near the top of the skull yet and the teeth retained a land mammal-like dentition. Most other primitive-looking whales died out in the Oligocene. This creature lasted well into the Miocene.
It’s my favorite fossil for a couple of reasons. The first is that I love cetacean evolution (whale evolution), and since isolated fossils of Squalodon are not terribly difficult to find, my eyes always light up when I find one of these primitive-looking whale fossils. The second reason is this was my first scientifically valuable specimen I discovered. I found the back of a Squalodon skull in the Calvert Cliffs years ago. The Calvert Marine Museum promptly excavated it and now houses the skull. There really hasn’t been much skull material found of these animals, so it was a really cool discovery!
(4) Given your experiences as an avocational paleontologist, what do you think are a few “best practices” for avocational and professional paleontologists in working with one another?
There are many “best practices” when working with one another. Here are what I believe to be the most important two.
For avocational fossil collectors, do your research before fossil collecting. It’s very important to know what is scientifically valuable and what is not. No one wants a unique specimen unknown to science sitting on a shelf in someone’s room simply because they didn’t know it was scientifically valuable.
For both professionals and avocational collectors, it’s very important to always keep the lines of communication open. This greatly reduces the possibility of scientific discoveries not making its way to museums and professionals. Both professionals and avocational collectors need to be in communication with each other.
(5) Between your website (www.fossilguy.com) and profession as a science teacher, it’s clear that you value science education. Why do you think it’s important for more people outside of academia to know about fossils and paleontology?
It’s important for people outside of academia to understand that amateurs make most of the scientifically valuable fossil discoveries. Professionals simply don’t have the numbers or the time to scout and conduct field work the way amateurs do. I always like to refer to amateur collectors roles as scouts. They go out, put in the hours, and make the discoveries. Paleontologists are often told about these discoveries or they are often donated to museums where they are researched upon by paleontologists. Without amateur fossil hunters, new research in the field of paleontology would nearly come to a screeching halt.
I think many people outside of academia don’t understand this relationship between amateurs and paleontologists. Unfortunately, some of these people have the power to impose strict collecting laws and close fossil collecting sites.
(6) What’s your “dream fossil” or place to go some day to look for fossils?
I don’t really have a dream fossil or a dream location. I like going out, exploring, and looking for fossils, no matter what type of fossil it is. I also have the travel bug and already travel around the world as much as I can, so there’s not really a specific place I would like to go someday to look for fossils. However, as a science geek, my dream is to continue to contribute to science and the field of paleontology. As long as I am contributing to science by finding specimens that are worthy enough for a museum collection or a research paper, I am living my dream.
Post authored by Anthony (Tony) Martin and edited by Taormina (Tara) Lepore.