What’s in a rock? Tick tock, time …
Lots of it if you know what you’re looking for, or perhaps the informed eye can find a rare plant fossil that etches the finder’s name in a scholarly reference book that only a person deeply fascinated with the wonder of biological life can appreciate.
We thought we were reaching way back when we celebrated Platte County’s 175th anniversary back in 2014. Doesn’t 2014 seem a long time ago right now? Heck, last week seems way back in a rapidly moving world where the touch of a finger on a tiny button can send a message around the world in seconds.
On Oct. 12, some of us spent a little time contemplating waves lapping against shores and ridges about 306 million years ago — give or take a few ticks and tocks — when lush green plants grew rank on soil that’s now rock in what became Platte County. They grew back before continental drift had put the rocks beneath our feet at a bearing on this side of the earth.
Back in the last century, fossil hound Tim Northcutt was at a rock and gem show when he got a tip that fossils turned up during construction of a vent for the underground development at Park University, which has converted old limestone mine shafts into campus offices and student areas in Parkville, Mo. Limestone is mined, and we’re reaping construction material from stone formed by biologic and geologic processes ancient in time beyond what most of us can comprehend.
Northcutt began collecting fossils at the college site in 1988 with permission. Then in 2009, he found some fossils in a group that placed him in the paleobotany books.
“I came across a specimen different from any I’d ever seen before,” said Northcutt, who was speaking at the Platte Land Trust annual gathering held at the Weatherby Lake Community Center.
The land trust is dedicated to preserving green space with native plants, animals and scenery that evolved over millions of years, only to be whittled down sharply amidst suburban development during the last 70 years, but especially in the last few decades. Visit www.plattelandtrust.com if you want to get involved with a progressive volunteer movement.
Northcutt himself is one of those motivated hobbyists that push the world forward along with the professionals, a paleontologist volunteer for science. He once had in his possession a rare group of plant fossils that he wound up turning back to the care of the Kansas University Natural History Museum.
Those ties came in handy when he crumbled some stone from the Parkville site and found an unusual fossil in his hands.
Northcutt held a seed fern, a plant with pollen organs on leaves that resemble seeds, but he also held a fossil with remarkable detail, one unlike any he had ever seen in his studies. So he contacted his friends in academia. They’d never seen one like it, either, and marveled at its detail.
After lots of review and study, it was determined that Northcutt had discovered a new genus and species of plant not known before to science. The find was given the scientific name, Parkvillia northcutti.
The fossil is considered 306 million years old, older than the dinosaurs. You wonder if the evidence of the plant can survive so long, how long will evidence of us endure? The plant and its kin grew at a time when the Kansas City area was a lot like the Mississippi delta is today, said Patricia Ryberg, assistant professor of biology at Park University.
“Most of what we see today didn’t even exist yet,” she said.
Oceans and land masses have risen and fallen over time, said Ryberg, who has a doctorate degree in botany from KU. She also studies 200- to 260-million-year-old fossils from Antarctica. Most of us simply worry how the Royals and Chiefs did last year versus this year.
(A tip for your club or school, Ryberg is a wonderfully entertaining speaker who brings the fossils to life in a fun way.)
Once upon a time club mosses grew 100 feet tall without woody material in stems, she said. And we think our ragweed and Johnson grass patches are troublesome? Horsetail is a plant type still with us, although some grew 30 feet tall in the Carboniferous age.
“They haven’t changed much in 300 million years,” Ryberg said.
Three types of ancient ferns have been found at the Parkville site. One cockroach-style insect fossil turned up.
But alas, Parkvillia northcutti and the other seed ferns are long extinct. All the fossils tell stories when people with curiosity find them and become interpreters.
Maybe someday there will be a place in our fledging, 17-year-old county park system to tell these stories to the studious and the curious.
Plants grow with energy from the sun. Northcutt’s find waited more than 300 million years to be exposed to the sun again. Thank goodness we’re capable of moving faster today, although if that’s a good thing may be debatable.
Bill Graham, who lives in the Platte City area, may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.