A Billion Years of History
By Gina C. Gould | January 17, 2011
Have you ever wondered what was beneath your feet? Here in Connecticut, it is the remnants of the Age of Dinosaurs - dinosaur footprints that mirror our own.
Driving along the rocky coast of Connecticut, one is reminded of the early history of the state; how the Dutch settled here in 1614 and how Connecticut residents were instrumental in repealing the Stamp Act of 1765. I am reminded of Connecticut’s history before European settlers, before paleohumans, even before plants invaded land, back when they were still free-floating in the water a billion years ago.
Since then, Connecticut’s bedrock has experienced considerable crunching, cracking, folding, and volcanism - hence, the undulating land across which you drive along the coastline. Complex as it is, geologists and paleontologists have pieced together some of the highlights of the state’s geological history.
The oldest rocks in Connecticut, the gneiss found in the western side of the state, formed about 1.1 billion years ago. The oldest rocks that preserve signs of former life are located in the center of the state, the New Haven Arkose, the shale and sandstones around Harford. These rocks are early Triassic, 250 million years old, the dawn of the Age of Dinosaurs.
These sediments, eroded by wind and water, originated from the Appalachian Mountains, which at the time, were more impressive than the Himalayas. The Appalachians were created during the formation of the supercontinent Pangaea, an event that witnessed the collision of world’s continents 250 million years ago.
Seventy-five million years later, Pangaea began to rift apart, and aside from creating the Atlantic Ocean, the Connecticut Valley was also created, which served as the perfect basin into which the New Haven Arkose and other sediments were deposited.
The Connecticut Valley, which is layer upon layer of sedimentary rock that has been folded and eroded repeatedly, preserves only a glimpse of the life forms that once thrived here. The fossil bearing strata of the Connecticut Valley extends from approximately 225-to-185 million years ago, and then the fossil record disappears until some 14,000 years ago to the Recent (The Age of Man).
The most notable Connecticut Valley fossils are the dinosaur track ways of footprints. There are thousands upon thousands of them that span tens of millions of years. Trace fossils as they may be (that is, no actual body part is preserved), these footprints preserve a record of population size, running mechanics, herd dynamics, and even biodiversity of the Age of Dinosaurs. Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill is the best place in Connecticut to see dinosaur tracks in situ. The Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven, the State Museum of Natural History in Storrs, and the Bruce Museum in Greenwich also have on display dinosaur track ways from Connecticut.
It is only recently that the Connecticut Valley has been the focus of paleontological investigation. This is primarily because it is much more fun to walk around the Badlands of the western United States and prospect for extra large dinosaurs weathering out of the rock than it is to dig through plant overgrowth, suffer the humid summers, and to be bitten by mosquitoes just to get a glimpse of the unknown.
Connecticut’s first notable paleontologist was Othneil Charles Marsh, Professor of Paleontology at the Peabody Museum of Yale University in New Haven. One of Darwin’s first American disciples, Marsh did not prospect in his own backyard he went west instead.
In the 1870s, at the beginning of the heyday of dinosaur hunting in the United States, O. C. Marsh used his considerable influence and financial backing to launch the “Great Bone Rush,” or “The Great Bone Wars,” as it is more commonly known. In Marsh’s zeal to become a famous paleontologist, Marsh embarked on a twenty-year discovery race with Edward Drinker Cope, a paleontologist from Philadelphia.
Their competitive, antagonistic nature toward one another resulted in the recovery of thousands of dinosaurs that might not have otherwise been discovered, as well as the publication of hundreds of scientific papers, all in an effort to outdo one another.
A lot has changed since then, but dinosaur hunting and paleontology remain very popular for both scientists and the public alike.
The Bruce Museum
1 Museum Drive, Greenwich, CT 06830