Quarry's limestone preserves remains of ancient sea life

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Fossils appear to be few and far between this summer at the Wymps Gap quarry.

Still, some are to be found by a visitor willing to make the 3-mile hike or bicycle ride to the site, which is southeast of Rockwood, Somerset County.

That outcrop of limestone is one of at least three locations across the commonwealth where amateur paleontologists can collect evidence of ancient life safely and legally.

The Wymps Gap site is named for a more than 300-million-year-old layer of rock that contains the remains of ancient sea life. Visible in the Mississippian-era blue-gray limestone are nearly complete shells from a group of creatures called brachiopods. The largest are the size of a dime.

The Wymps Gap quarry is adjacent to the Allegheny Highlands Trail that links Rockwood and Garrett. The trail is part of the Great Allegheny Passage.

State geologist Jim Shaulis and Tom Jones, a teacher in the Rockwood School District, placed wooden markers at several spots along the trail to identify sites of geological interest. The fossil quarry is marked GR5, and is located about one-quarter mile past the mile 41 trail marker.

Rockwood, which has parking and rest rooms for trail hikers and bikers, is about 70 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

The electric utility PPL has opened a portion of its Montour Preserve to fossil hunters.

The fossil pit is an exposed shale bank from the Devonian period, which was 360 million to 410 million years ago. Unlike the mostly shady Wymps Gap site, the dark rock in the pit is exposed to full sun in the afternoon. Bring plenty of water to drink and to fill a spray bottle for misting yourself.

The layer of rock once was part of a sea floor and contains lots of shell fragments, as well as segments of long-extinct trilobites and crinoids, or sea lilies. Although they resemble plants, crinoids were actually animals anchored to the sea floor by barrel-shaped stems that resembles tiny beads.

Montour Preserve is a trek. The fossil pit is about four hours and 230 miles northeast of Pittsburgh in Montour County. The preserve is about 10 miles from the state Rte. 54 exit of I-80.

Beltzville State Park in Carbon County was developed around a man-made lake constructed to ease flooding along the Lehigh and Delaware rivers.

Like those at the Montour site, Beltzville's fossils date back about 360 million years to the Devonian period. The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which operates state parks, identifies the lake shoreline near picnic pavilion No. 2 as the best place to find fossils. They include coral, brachiopods, trilobites, crinoids and bryozoans, an animal that lived in fan-, twig- or mound-shaped colonies.

A trip to Beltzville State Park requires at least an overnight journey.

The state park is 300 miles east of Pittsburgh. The trip takes about 51/2 hours, either via the Pennsylvania Turnpike or I-80. Beltzville is 4 miles from Exit 74, the Mahoning Valley interchange of the Turnpike's Northeast Extension.

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.


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