Pitt student finds fossil of ancient amphibian

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Paleontologists at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History have described a new species of early terrestrial amphibian whose fossilized skull was found in 2004 near Pittsburgh International Airport and named after the University of Pittsburgh student who found it and the FedEx Corp., which owns the property where it was discovered.

The trematopid -- Fedexia striegeli -- was a carnivorous amphibian that existed 300 million years ago. It had newt-like skin and resembled a 2-foot long salamander. It's one of just three fossils of trematopids from the Late Pennsylvania Period, 80 million years before dinosaurs first emerged.

Adam Striegel, a 29-year-old White Oak native who now teaches elementary school in Rockville, Md., discovered the fossil during a geology field trip, but the University of Pittsburgh junior mistook its jagged teeth to be a fossilized fern frond.

David S. Berman, the museum curator of vertebrate paleontology, said the trematopid was mostly terrestrial but likely laid its eggs in water. It had emerged on the land during a period when the accumulation of South Pole ice caused oceans to recede, creating larger land masses at a time when the Appalachian Mountains also had begun rising. The trematopid represents adaptation of animals to changing climate.

Amazingly, the intact fossil skull had not been crushed by layers of rock over the millions of years, providing a detailed specimen of skull features including an intact middle-ear bone.

The other two trematopid fossils existing from that same time period were discovered in New Mexico and Kansas. Dr. Berman and three other museum paleontologists published their description and the new name for the amphibian today in the Annals of Carnegie Museum.

More details in tomorrow's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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