History of New York Fossils
Trilobites and other marine animals

In 1893, a young Yale paleontologist named Beecher discovered near Rome, NY, a rich trove of well-preserved Ordovician fossils.  The fossils of what is known as
Beecher’s Trilobite Beds reveal that 450 million years ago a deep sea covered the region, harboring in its waters a wealth of invertebrate species: many species of trilobites hunted and scavenged on the sea floor; worms and clams burrowed in the mud; brachiopods attached themselves to the shells that littered the sea floor, opening their valves to filter the water for food; colorful crinoids (sea lilies) waved their flower-like stalks in the sea currents; predatory starfish patrolled the muddy bottom while squid-like nautoloids propelled themselves through the water with their long tentacles, seeking prey; coelenterate polyps built their coral houses on the sea floor while zooids built huge graptolite colonies that floated like rafts on the surface.


The first invertebrates crawled onto land by at least 425 million years ago, and took to the air a few millennia later. The oldest insect fossils date to 415 million years:
trigonotarbids – affectionately nicknamed “trig” by fossil-hunters – have features that place them as precursors to spiders, except that they lack poison fangs and spinnerets, and have complex eyes. In 370- million-year-old Devonian rocks discovered by Patricia Bonamo and Doug Grierson near Gilboa, a rich fossil trove in upstate New York, were microscopic mites with hair and claws; false scorpions with pincer-like jaws, specialized teeth and sensory hairs adapted to air; minute myrapod precursors of the six-foot-long millipede-like insects that rose to dominance in the Carboniferous; and trigs – all predatory animals that must have pursued their vegetarian prey onto land. It is thought that detritus-eating invertebrates colonized land along with the first land plants, possibly the Cooksonia that is often found with the insect fossils; insects did not develop the mouth parts for eating plants until the Carboniferous 50 million years later.

Primitive Forests

The Gilboa fossils enable us to reconstruct Middle Devonian terrestrial plant and animal life in New York. Towering 100 foot tall
club mosses and 50 to 90 foot tall horsetails dominated the marshy tropical lowlands. The club-mosses, or lycopsids, were bizarre-looking trees with scaly-barked trunks that bore leaf scars in spiral patterns, flourished branches from their crowns, and sprouted spikey leaves; their descendants are the ground-pines of temperate forests. The giant horsetails, or sphenopsids, had trunks jointed like bamboo, with branches extending from each raised joint, or node, and bearing circlets of leaves and cones; their descendants are the little horsetails commonly found along the edges of swamps. These trees reproduced by means of spores, which were dependent on water to reproduce. Later, during the Mississipian and Pennsylvanian periods (collectively known as the Carboniferous), seed-ferns colonized vast lowland tracts that extended away from the marshy edges of the sea. The evolution of seeds, which encased the embryonic plants in a protective covering, enabled plants to reproduce in drier habitats. The decayed remains of these trees would be drowned, buried, and compressed into the great coal seams that would fuel the industrial age. Because of severe erosion, no strata or fossils from the Carboniferous are preserved in New York. These primordial forests were  inhabited by insects ranging from tiny soil-dwellers (described above) to huge fliers like dragonflies with 30-inch wingspans; amphibians like the carnivorous six-foot-long Eryops, whose descendants are frogs and salamanders; and by the Pennsylvanian, mammal-like reptiles such as the eight foot long vegetarian Scutosaurus - an egg-laying precursor of the dinosaur. Just as plants had evolved seeds, animals evolved eggs with hard shells, which freed reptiles from dependency on water to reproduce.


When joined to the supercontinent of Pangaea around 250 million years ago, eastern North America was an arid interior land of rugged mountains and fault-formed valleys. Rainy seasons alternated with dry seasons: heavy rains flushed sediments down the flanks of mountains into rivers and rift-valley lakes called playas; when dry season came, the lakes shrank and muds baked in the subtropical sun. Across these muds the earliest known dinosaurs – small, meat-eating reptiles – left their three-toed bipedal tracks. In 1909, a fossil dinosaur of Triassic age was unearthed in a sandstone formation beneath basalt at the base of the Palisades. William Matthew of the Museum of Natural History identified it as a phytosaur, and it was named
Rutiodon manhattanensis. Toward the end of the Triassic, the region became more arid, signaling a major catastrophe: the red beds of the Newark Strata reveal a major change in fossils, marking a global extinction event known as the Triassic-Jurassic boundary, which marks the onset of the break-up of Pangaea. Huge lava flows erupted from beneath the earth’s crust and poured into the rift valleys. Perhaps the extinction event opened a niche for the dinosaurs, which now emerged as the dominant species on earth.

By the Jurassic, the dinosaurs had evolved into the monsters we like to fantasize about: the long-necked, herbivorous
sauropods and sharp-teethed carnivorous theropods of the Jurassic; by the Cretaceous, the thundering giants Tyrannosaurus and Gorgosaurus emerged on the scene. These represented one branch of the family dinosaur tree, the saurischians (“lizard-hipped”). The ornithischians (“bird-hipped’) evolved later and never attained the gargantuan sizes of the saurischians; they were all herbivores and included duck-billed hadrosaurs adapted to swampy habitats, triceratops with their ponderous heads and neck shields, and the stegosaurus with its row of armored plates along its spine, and spiked tail. Dinosaurs also took to the seas and air. Ichthyosaurs evolved in the Lower Jurassic, adapted to the water with its fin-like limbs. A branch of theropods, the coelurosaurians, were the first to evolve a covering of down (“Protofeathers”); a subgroup of this branch, the maniraptors, evolved true feathers, and were the direct ancestors of modern birds, which can be thought of as a surviving line of dinosaurs. [My information is based on a cladogram by Thomas R. Holtz, Jr., in Natural History 114:4 (5/05), 40-41.]

The fossilized tracks of the
saurischians are preserved in the Triassic-Jurassic red beds of the Connecticut River Valley and New Jersey’s Newark Basin, as well as on other continents of Pangaea. No fossil evidence has been unearthed in our region for the Late Jurassic giants, but fossilized dinosaur footprints dating to the Early Jurassic have been discovered at the Roseland Quarry in Essex County, New Jersey, and at Dinosaur State Park near Rocky Hill, Connecticut, south of Hartford. The oldest known dinosaur bone found in New Jersey Cretaceous formations is that of a 100-million-year-old tyrannosaur’s foot dug from a clay pit along the Delaware river, at Roebling (Burlington County), and the only known Cretaceous footprints were found in the Hampton Cutter Pits at Woodbridge, New Jersey, embedded in the so-called Raritan Formation strata dating to 90 million years ago. See below for places to view the fossils.


Flowering plants make their first appearance in the fossil record around 95 million years ago. In 1996, the American Museum of Natural History dispatched an expedition to an undisclosed site in central New Jersey. There, scientists David Grimaldi, curator of entomology at the museum, and cohorts Kevin Nixon and William Crepet, both of Cornell University, discovered a
Late Mesozoic fossil trove preserved in 94 million-year-old amber. The amber, embedded in ancient clay deposits, revealed 100 species of plants and animals hitherto unknown to science. Among these is the oldest known flowering plant specimen: a 90-million-year-old cluster of tiny oak tree flowers. Another site where Cretaceous-era flowering plants have been found is in Caumsett State Park, where red-shale concretions have yielded beautiful fossils of magnolia and sassafras. These rocks of red shale were not found in situ, but were deposited by a glacier from Connecticut redbeds.

--Betsy McCully

Reading List

Gallagher, William.
When Dinosaurs Roamed New Jersey. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.

Hall, James.
The Paleontology of New York, and Illustrations of Devonian Fossils. Geological Survey of the State of New York, 1876.

Hernick, Linda Van Aller.
The Gilboa Fossils. New York State Museum Circular 65. Albany: New York State Education Department, 2003.

McCully, Betsy.
City at the Water's Edge: A Natural History of New York (Rivergate/Rutgers, 2007)


http://bingweb.binghamton.edu/~kwilson/home.htm (Karl Wilson's site)
http://digsfossils.com (personal website)
www.nyps.org (New York Paleontology Society)
www.njpaleo.org (New Jersey Paleontology Society site)
www.rasny.org/fossil (Rochester Academy of Science)
www.yale.edu/ypmip/locations/beechers (Yale Peabody Museum website)

Where to see NYC region fossils

Robert M. Lindsay Museum at Colgate University http://departments.colgate.edu/geology/museum
Rutgers Geology Museum, Rutgers University, New Brunswick
Dinosaur State Park, Connecticut

Field Trips and Collecting Sites

www.nyps.org (New York Paleontology Society)
www.penndixie.org (Penn Dixie Outdoor Education Center of Hamburg Natural History Society)
Trilobite. credit: Karl A. Wilson
Eurypterus Remipes de Kay. Source: New York State Museum.
Trilobite. credit: Karl A. Wilson
Crinoid. credit: Karl A. Wilson
Dinosaur footprint in New Jersey credit: Otto S Zapecza
Trilobite. credit: Karl A. Wilson
Trilobite. credit: Karl A. Wilson
Updated August 2011
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