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Carly Q.

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Little paleontologists unearth South Jersey's prehistoric past

Little paleontologists unearth South Jersey's prehistoric past

Read the original story at courierpostonline.com.

Carly Q. Romalino, Courier-Post Published 8:20 a.m. ET July 17, 2017 | Updated 8:47 p.m. ET July 17, 2017

MANTUA - Kids aren't bringing home macaroni necklaces and a scorching case of sunburn from Rowan University's summer camp. 

"I got a big rock with kryptonite in it," Andrew Ellison, 6, said. 

"That's vivianite," his grandmother Catherine Ruiz-Eskew cut in, laughing. 

Andrew, from Indiana, is among 60 "Geo Explorers" at Rowan's first-ever camp at its Edelman Fossil Park in Mantua this week, the camp's second session. Sixty more campers participated in the first session last week. 

His grandmother — a retired school bus driver — is a volunteer at the park, an active research site just 2.2 miles from her house in Wenonah. She's trained to identify bits kids are digging up from sandy piles on the site, or sift from the wet sand running through the quarry. 

"I drove to New Jersey for 12 hours," Andrew said, climbing a pile of earth. 

He'll bring a teeny, tiny prehistoric shark tooth and his chunk of vivianite back to Fort Wayne when his New Jersey visit with his grandmother ends this week. 

 Andrew Ellison, 6, digs for fossils at Rowan University's Edelman Fossil Park in Mantua. (Photo: Jose Moreno/ Staff photographer)

Andrew Ellison, 6, digs for fossils at Rowan University's Edelman Fossil Park in Mantua. (Photo: Jose Moreno/ Staff photographer)

The young geologists and budding paleontologists used beach toys — plastic shovels, pails and sand sifters — to uncover bits of the past buried in the marl pit. When their fingers weren't caked with wet earth, scientist Paul UIllman taught campers about the animals that would have been walking or swimming among them on the site.

During the cretaceous period, the period dinosaurs lived on the Earth, South Jersey would have been under the Atlantic Ocean. The ocean would have washed up on to a beach near Philadelphia, Ullman explained. 

Kids digging for fossils in the former quarry would have been covered by 150 feet of ocean water, according to Ullman, a geologist and paleontologist with Rowan University. 

Clam, oyster and sponge fossils and iron and mineral deposits are most frequently uncovered in the Inversand quarry, located behind Lowe's in Mantua, and along Route 55 near exit 53.

But partial sea turtle skeletons and full crocodile skeletons have been discovered in the 40- to 50-foot deep pit, the geologist said.

A line formed for Ullman' attention as the early-morning sun beat down on the mud-covered campers in the quarry. Little hands held little finds, asking him to identify what they found. When they got their answer, they skipped back to their digging spot on the mounds. 

"It's always something different," Ullman said. 

"Sometimes it's a fish tooth or a shark tooth or a fish vertebrae. It's exciting."

Inversand opened the quarry a century ago, using the green sand for water purification processes. Fossils were discovered quickly after it opened. Chunks of prehistoric bits were left behind when the sand was filtered, according to Ullman. 

Rowan bought the site from Inversand in 2016. Through a $25 million donation, a 50,000-square-foot museum, dinosaur-theme playground and other site improvements will open by 2020. The university expects to break ground in spring 2018. Design and engineering will begin in the fall. The university currently is working on a market feasibility study to determine the museum's content, according to Heather Simmons, associate director of the fossil park. 

 Rowan Summer camp Students and Volunteers dig for Dinosaurus buried under their neighborhood. The program is for Summer campers - or GEO Explorers, digging for fossils at Rowan's fossil park in Mantua, N.J. (Photo: Jose F. Moreno/Staff Photographer)

Rowan Summer camp Students and Volunteers dig for Dinosaurus buried under their neighborhood. The program is for Summer campers - or GEO Explorers, digging for fossils at Rowan's fossil park in Mantua, N.J. (Photo: Jose F. Moreno/Staff Photographer)

This year's summer camp is a pilot, Simmons explained, to prove kids really are fascinated by dinosaurs and the remnants of the cretaceous period practically in their South Jersey backyards. 

"I always wanted to be a paleontologist," Swedesboro's Sara Durso, 11, said. 

"I thought it was amazing to study animals that weren't on the planet anymore."

Sara walked up to Ullman, and opened her palm. The scientist's delight was evident in his smile. She found something rare, he said. A prehistoric shrimp had burrowed into the soil. Rock formed around it creating a cast, he explained. 

"It's really easy to imagine dinosaurs 65 million years ago are in your state," Sara said, examining every angle of the shrimp cast. 

As the site develops, so will the programming offered, Simmons said. 

The Fossil Park is still considered a closed site. Air-conditioning and restrooms will change that in 2020, she said. 

The next chance for the public to visit the site is Community Dig Day in September. 

Carly Q. Romalino; (856) 486-2476; cromalino@gannettnj.com

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