Rowan to purchase fossil quarry in Mantua
Rowan to purchase fossil quarry in Mantua
A 65-acre quarry in Mantua Township—which contains fossils from the heyday of the dinosaurs and provides vital insights into the time of their mass extinction 65 million years ago—will be preserved for scientific research and as a center for “citizen science” by Rowan University.
The University is in the process of purchasing the quarry off Woodbury-Glassboro Road for $1.95 million.
Rowan leaders joined with State Senate President Steve Sweeney and Gloucester County and Mantua Township officials in discussing the future of the site during an event on Sept. 23 in the quarry.
The last open marl pit still in operation on the East Coast, the site has been owned by the Inversand Company for nearly a century. Through an agreement with Mantua Township as part of economic development planning services spearheaded by Gloucester County, Inversand maintained the site even as it moved to begin closing operations.
In doing so, the quarry—and the scientifically extraordinary fossils contained within—have been preserved. Now, Rowan will own the site, overseeing continued research and establishing a one-of-a-kind center for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education.
Internationally recognized paleontologist Dr. Kenneth Lacovara, who joined the University’s faculty this month, will oversee research and outreach activities at the quarry.
“This is an extraordinary opportunity for Rowan University, one that places us at the forefront of innovation and scientific discovery,” says Rowan President Ali A. Houshmand. “As a University, we have an obligation to preserve this unique educational treasure, right here in our backyard, for future generations.
"Our vision for the fossil quarry goes beyond educating schoolchildren. We will transform it into an internationally prominent center of research for people of all ages. We are looking forward to continuing to partner with Mantua Township and Gloucester County to accomplish that.”
Mantua Township helps save history
For years, Mantua Township officials recognized the fossil quarry’s extraordinary potential and worked with Lacovara to further develop the site as part of one of many redevelopment projects spearheaded by county freeholders.
In 2012, Mantua’s Economic Development Office began hosting community “dig days” at the site, wildly popular events which give community members the opportunity to search for fossils alongside Lacovara and his team.
Since then, more than 8,000 visitors—community members, schoolchildren, Cub Scouts, nature clubs, senior citizens--have searched for their own fossils in the quarry. Lacovara has spoken to every visitor, bringing the wonders of science to people of all ages through what he calls “citizen science.”
Researching an enduring mystery of science
At the same time, he and his team has been carefully documenting the evidence of a mass die-off of the animals that once lived there.
“We’ve uncovered thousands of fossils,” Lacovara says, “including the remains of ancient sea turtles, crocodiles, and portions of fearsome marine lizards called Mosasaurs, which grew to be the size of a bus.”
The ancient death scene poses a provocative question: Is this fossil bone bed related to the extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago?
“We don’t know yet,” says Lacovara, “but we are testing this hypothesis by examining the fossils, the sediments and the chemistry.”
If the hypothesis is validated, the Rowan University Fossil Quarry could provide an unparalleled window into a pivotal moment in Earth history, Lacovara maintains.
Rowan’s purchase of the quarry means that the University is preserving a site that may hold the keys to one of the most enduring mysteries of science.
Lacovara adds that the Inversand Company kept the quarry open for many years, operating at a loss and actively pumping out groundwater, a move that maintained the site and preserved the fossils.
“The quarry is about 45 feet under the water table. We’ve worked feverishly for years to get things done, knowing that Inversand was stretching their resources to keep the quarry open,” says Lacovara. “They deserve immense credit for their careful stewardship of the property, their concern for the community, and their unwavering support of science.”
The development of the site—and Rowan’s decision to preserve it—is economic development at its finest, State Senate President Steve Sweeney says.
World class resource
"Gloucester County Freeholders recognized years ago that the fossil quarry is a world class resource. They had the vision to make the most of it. Now, Rowan is ready to take that vision to the next level,” Sweeney says.
“Rowan’s ownership of the site is very exciting. We know they’ll be able to add the educational components necessary to make this a global scientific destination.”
The establishment of the science center at the fossil quarry means that areas around the site are ripe for development, a move that would boost the economy, Gloucester County Freeholder Director Robert Damminger says.
“Imagine the possibilities. The site may include a museum, science center and classrooms in the future,” says Damminger. “We’re fortunate that so many people have believed in this project, became invested, and are working to make it a success. It will become an extraordinary asset for our region.”
Partnerships have been key to preserving the quarry for the future, Mantua Township Mayor Pete Scirrotto says.
“We are fortunate to have been able to get to this point through cooperation and partnership with the county, Inversand and Dr. Lacovara,” Scirrotto says. “The quarry is tremendously valuable—historically, educationally and economically. We’re excited to have Rowan University as the quarry’s newest champion.”
About Dr. Kenneth Lacovara
Lacovara is best-known for the discovery of the giant plant-eating dinosaur Dreadnoughtus schrani in Argentina, which gained international acclaim a year ago this month. To bring this animal to light, Lacovara led five expeditions to a remote corner of Patagonia, where he and his team excavated more than 16 tons of fossils.
In life, Dreadnoughtus stretched 85-feet-long, stood two-and-a-half stories at the shoulder and weighed more than 65 tons, which is more than nine T. rex, more than a dozen African elephants, and even more than a Boeing 737.
Lacovara is a fellow of the prestigious Explorers Club, has conducted research on five continents, and is a leader in applying cutting-edge technology, such as 3D printing and computer modeling, to the study of dinosaurs. He is a 1984 graduate of the University.
School of Earth & Environment
Rowan’s plan is for Lacovara to launch a new School of Earth & Environment, which will feature a variety of majors, all of which will use the quarry and its surrounding ecosystems as a laboratory for hands-on experiential learning. Lacovara will serve as founding dean of the new school.