A Catskill Catalog: Oct. 14, 2009

The oldest known forest, fossil remains of tree-sized plants, today form a roadside attraction on Route 990V, just off Route 30 in Gilboa. The Gilboa Forest was discovered in 1850 when floodwaters turned up large fossilized tree trunks 380 million years old. That placed the fossils in the Middle Devonian Period of the Paleozoic Era, a time 150 million years, or so, before the Triassic Period, the era of the earliest dinosaurs.
Thus, we know that the region we call home today has a prehistory that goes back to the earliest periods of plant life, the very beginnings of botany. But what about animals, the beginnings of zoology?
Eurypterus remipes, a sea scorpion, is the official New York state fossil. Its discovery predates the Gilboa Forest discovery, having been turned up in 1818 near Pittsford in western New York during the digging of the Eire Canal. These sea scorpions lived 395 to 420 million years ago, dwelling on the bottom of the vast inland sea that then covered the northeast, growing as big as 12 feet long, preying on whatever primeval bottom-crawlers were found there.
But a sea scorpion, no matter how big and how ancient, is an arthropod, like a lobster, a spider, or a crab. And every kid knows, the real action in prehistoric animals is the dinosaur.
So, were there any dinosaurs in the Catskills? That’s the question many a 10-year-old mountain resident might want to know. Kids love dinosaurs, right?
Dinosaur fossil hunting in America began in the early 19th Century. In 1800, the Connecticut River Valley became Ground One for American fossil-finding, when a Williams College student discovered footprints of a prehistoric bird he called Noah’s Raven, interpreting the footprints as the products of the Great Flood.
Later, Edward Hitchcock, professor of Geology at Amherst College, became the first American scientist to investigate dinosaurs systematically. The sandstones of the Connecticut River Valley led him to fossil discoveries in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Others uncovered dinosaur evidence in New Jersey. Yet, for 150 years after these first American finds, New York State was left out of the action, with no dinosaur remains to call its own.
Until 1972. Two paleontologists, Paul Olson and Robert Salvia, discovered clear footprints on two slabs of sandstone down in Blauvelt, Rockland County. The tracks were identified as those of a Coelophysis (pronounced seel-o-phy-sis), a dinosaur eight-to-10 feet long, weighing from 80 to 125 pounds, with a bird-like head and long snout. The Coelophysis stood upright, moved quickly, and had knife-sharp teeth that clearly identify our New York State dinosaur as one of the earliest meat-eaters.
In fact, our agile, two-legged, short-armed, lizard-like dino friend was of the same family as the Tyrannosaurus Rex. That close connection to every little kid’s prehistoric favorite ought to make proud every fourth-grader in New York State’s schools.
But, alas, there is no hard evidence of the Coelophysis lizard-hopping her way up here to the Catskills, so we can’t answer for sure our Catskills dinosaur question. But, really, there is a problem with the question itself: whether the Catskills ever were home to the dinosaurs.
As I have said, the Triassic Period of the Mesozoic Era was the first age of the dinosaurs, 20 million years before the Jurassic Period Steven Spielberg made famous. During that time, the world was a very different place from the planet we live on today. All the continental landmasses had merged to form a super-continent scientists call Pangaea.
When New York’s dinosaur left its footprints, geological forces were slowly developing the dissected plateau that was to be the Catskill Mountains, but the landmass those forces were dissecting was quite a different place than the geography we know now.
Picture a map where our Catskills butt-up close to what, today, would be Venezuela and Nigeria, a map where North America, South America and Africa look like they have joined together tight to squeeze Europe toward the North Pole into Greenland. The Triassic super-continent Pangaea is so different from today’s Earth that we can’t really say that any place then is a clear early version of that same place today.
In fact, the landscape was so different that the Rockland County of the dinosaur’s day might well have been a landscape indistinguishable from that period’s Catskills, all mud and sand and run-off delta wash, one big slushy, boggy drain. With that in mind, we might say that New York State’s dinosaur, Coelophysis, did once roam the Catskills .
Happy kids? We do have our own dinosaur, one that ran as fast as 35 miles per hour, that hunted in packs in mud flats and along shore lines, one whose lizard hips, powerful back legs, beast feet, and sharp teeth made it a fierce and feared hunter, not quite a tyrant king, but close. Be proud!