Fans of fossils will dig this news.
Penn Dixie Fossil Park and Nature Reserve in Blasdell opens for the season this Saturday.
This is the 24th season for the fossil park, where guests can find and take home fossils of ancient sea creatures from the Devonian period, around 380 million years ago.
During that time period, Western New York was underwater, in much more tropical conditions than we have today, Dr. Phil Stokes, executive director of Penn Dixie said.
“We have an abundance of marine life here,” Stokes said. “These are creatures that lived underwater in a shallow coral reef environment- if you’ve seen the movies “Finding Nemo” or “Finding Dory”, it’s that type of environment.
The shallow water was home to a huge amount of biodiversity, including trilobites- an extinct type of arthopod-, ancient brachipods, and coral, all of which can be found in fossil form at Penn Dixie.
Less commonly found at the site are placoderms- a sharklike fish that was the apex predator of its time.
“They were swimming around, eating everything,’ Stokes said. “They were probably the size of this pavilion. We do find their fossils here, but they’re pretty rare.”
Visitors to the Penn Dixie site can collect and keep whatever fossils they can find.
Stokes said that guests should dress for the weather, layer their clothing, and wear proper footwear.
Good tools to bring include gloves, safety glasses, and hammers to break rocks.
Tools are available to borrow if you don’t have your own, but since many fossils sit at the surface of the ground, simply searching with your hands might work.
That’s due to the shale that makes up the majority of rock in the site, Penn Dixie director of education Dr. Holly Schreiber said .
“Thanks to our Western New York winters and our rainy springs and summers, the shale rock that holds the fossils erodes away,” Schreiber said. “The shale is softer than the fossils, which leads the fossils right at the surface, and it’s pretty easy picking.”
The fossils sitting on the surface make the park a good destination for families with small kids, she added.
“It’s great for the little fossil collectors,” Shreiber said.
Visitors to the site will receive a tour and staff will explain the finding process. After that, guests are invited to stay until close, and to take home whatever they find.
“One of the things that makes Penn Dixie unique is that visitors can keep any fossils they find,” Stokes said. “At a lot of places, they have to pay per pound of fossils found, or if they’re on state or federal land, are not allowed to collect at all.”
The site was once home to the Penn Dixie Cement Company, which mined the shale and used it in cement.
The company had plants from New York to Georgia.
When Penn Dixie Cement filed for bankruptcy in the early 1970s, it closed most of its plants, including the one in Blasdell, Stoke said.
“The land was essentially unoccupied for about 20 years,” Stokes said. “Folks used it to party, ride four-wheelers, and shoot guns, as well as using it as a dumping ground.”
In the 1990s, there were some proposals for the land, including to turn it into a chemical storage depot.
“A group of concerned citizens from the community was able to get them blocked from happening,” Stokes said.
Stokes said the citizens then joined with a group of paleontologists and fossil collectors who knew about the prevalent, well-preserved fossils at the site.
“In 1993, they formed the Hamburg Natural History Society, and in 1995, Hamburg purchased this land from the owner and donated it to the society, as long as we clean out all of the trash and open it for scientific education programs,” Stokes said.
Penn Dixie is also a nature preserve- and is home to plenty of wildlife, including killdeer, heron, and hawks.
Plenty of events are planned for the season at Penn Dixie, including monthly stargazing nights starting on Saturday.
Click here for a full list of events.
Penn Dixie is open to the public on weekends from April 27 to Oct. 20- 9 a..m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
The site is open to the public daily from June 17 to Sept., 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Hours on Friday in July will be extended to 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. this year.