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Discovered on a CNY hilltop: remarkable evidence of a time this place was a tropical sea

  • 14 December 2021
  • ckearns

By Glenn Coin |

Syracuse, N.Y. – Nancy Furdock loved fossil hunting as a kid growing up in rural Pompey. So when odd, tubular-shaped rocks began tumbling from the backhoe digging the foundation for her new house atop a hill in Pompey, Furdock was intrigued.

“My excavator happened to mention that there’s these weird-looking finger-like rocks he’d never seen before,” she recalled.

It would turn out to be an unprecedented unveiling of a 380-million-year-old reef, which thrived in a shallow sea that covered Central New York more than 100 million years before the dinosaurs. It was a finding so rare that one geologist called it a once-in-a-lifetime chance to glimpse Central New York’s ancient, tropical past.

After Furdock saw the strange fossils where her basement would soon be, she hopped online, Googled something like “long narrow fossil,” and found the answer: Her property teemed with fossilized rugose coral, a long-extinct, horn-shaped, wrinkled coral that grew in such profusion they created vast patches of reefs.

“I said, I should tell somebody about this, just in case,” Furdock recalled. She sent an email to the Syracuse University earth sciences department in late April.

The email landed in the right inbox.

“I will always remember the sense of complete exhilaration of seeing that email message,” said Cathryn Newton, an SU geology professor of marine paleoecology who studies corals.

Newton, fellow SU professor Linda Ivany, and a group of students rushed out on Saturday morning. They knew they didn’t have much time before the concrete was poured on the foundation of the 2,100-square-foot house.

“This was a paleontological emergency,” Newton said, smiling.

After dusting off a coat of Syracuse’s signature late-April snow, Newton and Ivany discovered on that Pompey hilltop a reef that had thrived 380 million years ago. It was packed with a 3-foot layer of fossilized remains of coral and shells that marked the Devonian period, when what is now snowy New York state was submerged beneath a tropical sea.

“It took us seconds to realize that these are mountains of fossil corals,” Ivany said. “Everything that came out of that hole is almost entirely fossil.”

To the untrained eye, the piles of dug-up reef are just mounds of brittle gray rocks. But look closer and you see tubes and horns, thicker than a thumb and several inches long, with ridged sides. Some look like the pointy teeth of dinosaurs, but they can’t be: Dinosaurs wouldn’t appear until 130 million years after this reef was alive.

Geologists spend their careers sifting through scattered bits and pieces of ancient worlds, trying to reassemble the past from its fragments. To find an intact system this old – and be able to immerse yourself in it — was a geologist’s dream.

“Once in a lifetime, if that, would one get a chance to roam around a Devonian reef in three and four dimensions as if we were snorkeling through it,” said Newton, who as a Duke University sophomore helped discover the sunken Monitor shipwreck. “For people working on ancient corals, this is really a major find.”

It’s hard to comprehend how different Earth appeared during the Devonian. What is now New York state actually lay below the equator, in the tropics, as the continents drifted together. To the southeast lay the narrowing Iapetus Ocean, which would later open again to become the Atlantic.

A 150-foot-deep inlet of that ancient ocean covered what is now New York and deposited the sediments of the Marcellus shale, the hotbed today of the natural gas extraction process known as fracking.

Fish were abundant in the oceans; on land, the first forests were evolving, in the region now known as the Catskills.

In Pompey, Newton and Ivany had about a week before the foundation would be poured. Ivany brought students from her “Mass Extinctions” class. Two professors from neighboring SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry combed the reef. Graduate and Ph.D. students roamed the site, about 1,700 feet above sea level.

They took samples and pictures, did chemical analyses, loaded 2-square-foot blocks of reef into their car trunks, and generally stood in awe in the 8-foot-deep hole into the past.

“There are a few, very few places where you can see little glimpses of coral beds like this, but they’re just in an outcrop and you can only see a snapshot of a very small region,” Ivany said. “In this case, you could literally stand in the middle of it and see the extent and thickness of this bed.”

Ivany said the same coral bed pops up in the ditches near the driveway of the Beak & Skiff orchard, nearby in Tully, and might even extend as far as Buffalo. Because of development and forests, much of the reef’s outcrops are hidden from sight.

The corals on the reef thrived for thousands of years, maybe 100,000, but that’s a blink in the earth’s 4.5-billion-year lifespan.

“How great to be the site of a kind of flourishing: Syracuse, New York, the snowiest place in the lower 48, to be ironically, but truly, known as the place of flourishing of coral reefs,” Newton said. “Now that’s a rebrand.”

Newton and Ivany said the research they’ve already done and will do on the samples will turn into scientific papers and classroom learning for years to come.

Corals absorb chemicals in their outer layers and are “very sensitive recorders” of the environment, Newton said. Like tree rings or ice cores, ancient corals can yield secrets about climate and the composition of the oceans. SU will conduct geochemical tests to see what the corals ate and how they grew.

“We’re doing the quiet, patient work of identifying things and trying to figure out what tests we’re going to be able to do on them,” Newton said. “We’re actually expecting that we’ll be able to get some scientific articles out of that.”

Eventually, the house foundation was poured, and the reef exposed by the excavation was covered over. Furdock had contractors scoop up bucket loads of fossils and pile them up a few hundred yards from the house. She plans to offer up the site for teachers to bring students to pick among the fossils.

The house, with its stunning view of Oneida Lake 25 miles to the north, is perched near a metal forest of radio and cell phone towers. During the planning for their retirement home, Furdock and her husband, Darren Keegan, had decided to call their property “Signal Ridge.” Now, the sign near the road will instead read “Coral Ridge.”

“People will ask, ‘Why Coral Ridge if it’s on top of a mountain?’ ” Furdock said. “I’ll say, ‘Well, I’m glad you asked. It’s a great story.’ ”

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