Paleontologists dig up prehistoric fossils behind New Jersey shopping center

Michael Walsh

Paleontologists are excavating a fossil site that might unlock a treasure trove of insights into the disappearance of the dinosaurs — and it's just a stone's throw from a New Jersey strip mall.

The Mantua Township quarry could be the most important prehistoric dig site in years if scientists are correct in their hypothesis that it contains animals that died when a meteorite struck the Earth 65 million years ago, killing off the dinosaurs.

“In the end, if our work doesn’t find anything to disprove that, then this would be the only site in the world where we have fossils of organisms that actually died during that extinction event,” paleontologist Paul Ullmann told Yahoo News.

“And that would be really cool."

Every week, Ullmann, a graduate student at Drexel University in Philadelphia, heads over to the site behind the Mantua Square shopping center, which has already turned up loads of prehistoric beasts, from crocodile ancestors to mosasaurs, which resemble giant Komodo dragons.

“Mosasaurs had teeth at the top of their mouths that point backward to help prevent prey from swimming out,” Drexel Professor Ken Lacovara said in an interview with Yahoo News. “They were really frightening sea monsters.”

The animals lived in this stretch of New Jersey back when it was a shallow coastal environment and pterosaurs ruled the skies.

Ullmann is working under Lacovara, who made international headlines after discovering the gigantic dreadnaughtus in Argentina this past summer.

The dreadnaughtus, which was 85 feet long and weighed 65 tons, is the largest land animal whose mass can be calculated accurately because its skeleton was found largely intact.

“It weighed as much as a dozen African elephants or more than seven T. rex," Lacovara said at the time.

The recent dig site, however, provides a much easier commute for the Drexel professor.

“Dinosaur paleontology began in New Jersey,” Lacovara said. “The world’s first discovered dinosaur was in Haddonfield, N.J.”

Scientists have known about the Mantua Township site for about a century, but the idea that these bones go back to the end of the Cretaceous period has been floating around for only a decade.

“We are trying to test that hypothesis and see if there is any evidence that would disprove this,” Ullmann said. “Every week we are going out and finding more from the bone bed.”

Sometimes the researchers invite schoolchildren along for the adventures to help foster a love of science and discovery. Ullmann said they ultimately want to set up a visitors' center where the local community can learn about scientific research while watching it in action.

"We are showing them that science is a process rather than a series of facts to memorize," Lacovara said.

Michelle Bruner, economic development coordinator for the township, told Yahoo News that it has already applied for land acquisition funds to bring this vision to fruition.