Museum Receives an Exquisite 215-Million-Year-Old Gift

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A few weeks ago my friend Jason Schein, natural history assistant curator at the New Jersey State Museum, told me I had to come down to the museum sometime. They had just acquired an exquisite new fossil reptile, he said, and so I took the short drive to Trenton to see the specimen for myself.

It was not very large, but it was a beautiful specimen. Preserved in a slab of 215-million-year-old rock was the 20-inch-long body of Tanytrachelos ahynis, an aquatic reptile that was closely related to the long-necked Tanystropheus and that lived alongside early dinosaurs about 215 million years ago. Most of the skeleton was intact, and though it was too fragile to prepare further, the museum's scientists are already planning on using some high-tech tools to scan and study the fossil without damaging it further.

But what makes this specimen particularly important is where it came from and what happened to it once it was discovered. Most of the Tanytrachelos specimens discovered to date have come from Virginia, and while fossil deposits of the right age and type to preserve Tanytrachelos have long been known to exist in northern New Jersey, no one expected to find one in the Garden State. Yet, in October of 1979, amateur collectors James Leonard, Steven Stelz and Trini Stelz split open a piece of shale from a northern New Jersey quarry to find the skeleton of the small reptile. They had never found anything quite like it before, and when they brought it to paleontologists Donald Baird of Princeton he identified it as Tanytrachelos.

The fossil remained on display at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Geologic Observatory for decades,  but recently the discoverers decided that it should go home to New Jersey for display and study. It can presently be seen at the bottom of the stairwell on the lower floor of the New Jersey State Museum, and the detailed study of the fossil and what it might be able to tell us about prehistoric New Jersey will begin soon.

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