Drexel Team Unearths Ancient Fossils

Inside Dr. Ken Lacovara’s laboratory, the familiar blocky pattern of a turtle shell is starting to take shape.  But this just isn’t any turtle.

Rather, to hear Lacovara tell it, the fossil he’s assembling represents a very significant find in the field of paleontology.

It was in a dig site in Sewell, N.J. where Lacovara, associate professor of biology at Drexel, along with Drexel students and representatives from the Academy of Natural Sciences and the New Jersey State Museum, found the fossil of a 65-million-year-old predatory marine turtle Taphrosphys sulcatus.

This particular site, which is known for the best exposed Cretaceous-age rocks between Spain and Montana, has yielded a number of exciting finds for Lacovara and his team, but this turtle fossil was special. 

“This fossil is by far the biggest ever found in the world,” Lacovara said of the three-foot-wide fossil. “It’s 40 percent bigger than any others found (of this species).”

Drexel students have started to piece together the top shell, or carapace, and the team believes that they also have the fossil femur and part of a scapula (shoulder blade). Several more weeks of work are needed to remove it from its protective jacket, followed by a month or two of fossil preparation. Once the turtle fossil is prepared, Lacovara said fossils from other Drexel specimens of the same species could be added to make an almost-complete fossil skeleton. In the meantime, Lacovara and his team will begin working on another fossil found one week after and mere feet away from the marine turtle—the brain case of what is believed to be a mosasaur, another marine reptile that looks like “a cross between a dolphin and a Komodo dragon,” Lacovara said.

Eventually, he’d like to put both the turtle and the mosasaur fossils on public display either at the Academy of Natural Sciences or in his lab in the new Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building, scheduled to open in August. See Drexel’s Flickr page at www.flickr.com/photos/drexeluniversity/sets/72157627021199581/ for some behind-the-scenes photos of the fossil preparation.