5 Oct
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Stepping into Prehistoric Rhode Island

Mike Kieran of Roger Williams’ Park Museum of Natural History identifies fossils.

Long before any of us were old enough to watch “Jurassic Park”, we were seized with the urge to dig.  At a tender age, our family regaled us with bedtime tales of mighty beasts towering over the landscape.  According to the stories, paleontologists appeared to simply find some exotic locale, dig a hole, and the next thing you know they were posing for pictures beside a bone thicker than their body.  What could be easier?  So, with bliss born of ignorance, we dug.  And dug.  And maybe some of us dug in the garden, since the earth there was so soft and tempting.  Or maybe a mischievous uncle or older sibling snuck a soup bone into the mix when we weren’t looking, thereby confirming what our six-year-old minds knew all along: dinosaur bones are simply there for the taking. Of course, most of us eventually realized that it wasn’t that simple.  We were chased out of the garden or laughed at because someone spilled the beans about the soup bone.  Whatever the trigger was, sooner or later most of us gave up our dreams of dino discovery.


         Not so with Mike Kieran.  Since 1992, Mike has worked with Roger Williams Park’s Museum of Natural History chipping, digging, and scraping at Rhode Island’s fossil and mineral record.  “When I was a kid, my grandmother used to bring me out on walks.  I’d wander around with my copy of The Golden Guide to Rocks and Minerals and we’d identify what we found.  I still have that copy on my bookshelf.”  His bliss rises not from ignorance, but from years of reading, studying, and digging.  Because while Rhode Island’s back yards may not be brimming with prehistoric bones, Kieran knows where to find traces of its ancient past.

         On a drizzly day, Kieran hoists a bulging pack on his back and ambles across a rocky stretch of shoreline exposed by the tide.  In the distance is the anomalous sight of a high rise condominium towering over the landscape like a beast of prehistory.  In fact, this particular development rests atop a former coal mine where numerous fossils were discovered in the course of mining.  The massive machines that probed the earth for the fuel that once powered a nation brought up layers of fossils amid the black rock.  “I used to hunt fossils around there when I was a kid,” Kieran says.  A native of East Providence, Kieran learned the location and history behind numerous mining operations around Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

       DSC04730  The cobble beneath our feet is as slick as ice as we slip our way along the shore.  The tidal bottom stops abruptly at a steep ledge of about thirty feet.  Most of the ledge is heavily vegetated, but the first five feet or so rising above the water line is layered rock.  It is here that the hunt begins.

         The destination is a segment where time has eroded part of the bedrock, creating a low overhang about four feet high.  Here, we are forced first to stoop, then to sit as we set to work.  Mike dives into his backpack and retrieves short, stocky hammers and chisels.  “I think we’ll start… here.”  If there is a reason for that particular choice, it is not readily apparent.  Kieran places the chisel nearly parallel to the ground and begins to pound.

         This may be a good time to dispel any unrealistic expectations.  According to Kieran, Rhode Island does not contain any fossils of animals. This is not to say that the region did not host the great beasts of old; it is because of the way living things were preserved.  In order for fossilization to occur, he says, a particular process must take place.  When an animal dies, it must be rapidly covered with mud or other material produced by a drastic occurrence such as a volcanic eruption.  Without rapid covering, the body will decompose and become food for scavengers.  Much of what is now Rhode Island was formed during the Pennsylvanian Period, some 300 million years ago.  At this time, the land we’re digging lay between two great rivers.  These rivers would flood periodically, burying plant life in a layer of silt and mud.  However, there were no sudden, catastrophic events that would lead to preserving animals.


         Which is not to say no animals were ever there.  Paleontologists have determined that this region had an atmosphere rich in oxygen and humidity.  These conditions produced dragonflies with a wingspan of nearly three feet that flew around the swamps.  Large scorpions and spiders the size of an adult hand crawled along the ground.  However, the famed Jurassic period that most people associate with prehistoric life was still a hundred million years in the future.

         The black rock where Mike begins his search is layered like the pages of a book.  This is part of the challenge of collecting in this region: while the floods of prehistory drowned and preserved plant matter, it also deposited the preserving mud in very thin layers.  Sometimes the rock comes up in large chunks, but other times it shatters into what Kieran nicknames “potato chips”, thin fragments that crumble with very little pressure.

                     Still, the search proves profitable.  At first we find rock with lines running through it.

Kieran points out fossils of prehistoric root systems.

Kieran points out fossils of prehistoric root systems.

While the lines initially appear random, Kieran points out that these are root systems.  Other samples produce more obvious fossils of plant life, much of which is the ancestor of plant life still alive today.  There are calamites, a “horsetail” plant resembling thick blades of grass.  Cordaites, similar to today’s princess pines, also appear, along with several seed and true ferns.  The scaly bark of cordaites is sometimes mistaken for fish scales.  In fact, much of our spot yields a steady array of plant fossils.

A fern (left) and a chordate.

A fern (left) and a chordate.

         It is a good day of collecting, and the treasures are wrapped in paper towels to provide padding against shattering.  Before we leave, though, there is one more identification to be made.  Mike Kieran examines a chunk of rock he’s handed.  The rock has interesting colors, and perhaps this is yet another type of fossil? Have we finally found the first dinosaur bone that we searched for with such enthusiasm when we were six?  Maybe not.  “Yeah, we have a name for this.  It’s one we all come up with on occasion.  We call it ‘Leveright’.  As in ‘leave ‘er right here’,” he laughs, tossing the rock aside.

The Museum of Natural History and Planetarium offers programs for both adults and children.  Find their website at http://www.providenceri.com/museum/.



  • Wow cool post and I have shared this as well…on a couple of FB sites.
    Geology Mike way to go…doing what he likes to do best…

    You should post some more about scientists, geologist, biologists etc of RI

    For example I do volunteer work with different watershed rivers groups looking for freshwater mussels and invertebrate. I also do volunteer work with CRMC and with a marine biologists Niels Hobbs looking for invasive marine invertebrates…

    Or how about info on the state geologist of RI and what they do …?
    How about information on the Geology /Biology Depts found in RI colleges and Universities…

    Then there is the RI River Council, the different Watershed/River Groups in RI tying to clean up the rivers and or getting damns built for increasing the Herring runs in Spring..

    What about the Horseshoe Crab surveys that have been done here in the state by Save the Bay or their work on eel grass project…

    The Saltwater ponds groups…

    Or about the Rhode Island Natural History Survey and the Bio Blitz that is done in early June of each year….?

    Then there is the Watershed Watch group at URI…???

    there is a lot going on here in RI you just have to know where to look…!!!


    Ray Hartenstine

    • Hi Ray,
      Not sure why, but I didn’t get your comment until now. Sorry for the long delay.
      Glad you enjoyed the post. Mike was great to work with, and the field trip was a lot of fun!

      Your suggestions are great, and I will definitely follow up on them. Thanks for the comment, and I hope you’ll keep reading!

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