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In New Jersey, Kids Help Dig For Fossils In An Unlikely Place


A long time ago in South Jersey, long before a Lowe's, a Chick-Fil-A and a PetSmart were built off of Route 55, mosasaurs, crocodiles and other sea creatures ruled the area. Researchers have found a treasure trove of fossils in a woodsy area behind the Lowe's. And each week, they invite dozens of kids to join in on the digs. Elana Gordon from member station WHYY in Philadelphia recently took a trip there.

ELANA GORDON, BYLINE: Mya Mutcherson and Isabella Mazzuca cannot contain themselves.

What are you doing here?

ISABELLA MAZZUCA: We're going to find some fossils.

MYA MUTCHERSON: We're going to find some fossils.

GORDON: How do you feel about that?

ISABELLA: We're pretty excited.

MYA: We're pretty excited.

GORDON: Who could blame them?

KENNETH LACOVARA: Hey, who wants to find some fossils?


SPENCER ALBANO: These South Jersey fourth graders are on a fossil dig, a real one. Spencer Albano is armed with a plastic beach shovel. He dives right onto a big pile of dirt with a bunch of other kids.

SPENCER: I've been at a museum with my dad where we kind of got to do a little tiny fossil dig. They just placed them there though. It's not real fossils.

GORDON: Not like here. Welcome to Rowan University's Fossil Park.


GORDON: The mastermind behind it is Ken Lacovara, dean of the department of Earth and Environment.

LACOVARA: Every kid that comes here who tries a little bit and who isn't afraid to get dirty is going to find a 65-million-year-old fossil with their own hands that they get to take home.

GORDON: That's right, a 65-million-year-old fossil. Lacovara says the site is basically a bottomless pit. They're not going to run out, at least not for the next, oh, 600 years. He's been coming to this old quarry for a while. It used to be mined for its greensand. And this entire region is known for fossils dating back to when New Jersey was but an ocean floor.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I've already found one.

GORDON: Within moments, kids start running up to Lacovara with questions about their tiny discoveries.

LACOVARA: This is a fossil coral right here. Yep. You know what a jellyfish is, right?


LACOVARA: So imagine an upside-down jellyfish stuck inside a little horn. That's what it's like.

GORDON: Lacovara is a paleontologist who famously unearthed the remains of a 65-ton dinosaur in Argentina. And while he's traveled the world on digs, he's doing some serious research right here. He thinks this site could yield clues into the mass extinction of dinosaurs. That research is happening in an area roped off from these deliriously-happy kids.

JOHN KELLY: I found something.

GORDON: Cool, what'd you find?

JOHN: A gigantic piece of animal dropping.

GORDON: Fossil poop. John Kelly is stoked. As one might imagine, the waiting list to get into this place is long. Lacovara has led thousands of students through here.

HEAVENLY SPENCE: I'm probably living my own dream.

GORDON: This is 9-year-old Heavenly Spence. She found part of a clam.

HEAVENLY: I'm thinking about, like, how did dinosaurs get here? How did they die?

GORDON: Rowan University bought the 65-acre site last year. They plan to turn it into a big research and education park. Think fossil prep lab, nature trail and way more access for kids. As the hour wraps up, I hear several kids say...

ALYSSA: I just love it.

SPENCER: I don't want to leave. It's so fun.

HELENA: I don't want to leave...

GORDON: Ever. With that, they trek back uphill, now armed with little fossil pieces and big ideas about the world around them. For NPR News, I'm Elana Gordon in Mantua, N.J. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elana Gordon