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Granite Geek: Why Doesn't New Hampshire Have Many Fossils?

Bruce Lyndes
Plymouth State University

Last month, Fred Prince, a biology professor at Plymouth State University, found and confirmed the first woolly mammoth tooth on land in New Hampshire.

So the question is, what took so long - especially given that such teeth have already been found in Vermont and Maine?

To solve this mystery, we turn to David Brooks, who writes the weekly Granite Geek science column for the Nashua Telegraph and He wrote about Prince's find in his latest column.

Why is the Granite State home to so few mammoth teeth, or for that matter, fossils of any kind?

“It’s good old geology, which explains an awful lot about what happens around us.  Granite – we’re the Granite State, not the limestone state. Granite is an igneous rock, as we all remember from earth science class, is formed by cooled lava. Red hot molten rock does not preserve fossils very well. Whereas out west, where there are lots of fossils, most of the rock is sedimentary, which means it was formed over time by sediment settling down and turning into rock. And that’s a great way to preserve stuff that’s in the sediment, such as bones. So it’s all because of geology.”

And for the newer fossils, the soil here is not particularly conducive to preservation?

“Yeah, that’s also a function of geology because of all the various minerals and whatnot underlying it. Our soil is relatively acidic, which is hard on bones and teeth. So mammal fossils, or those not dinosaurs but more recent things, saying in the 10,000 to 20,000 years, they don’t last very well in our soil, either. The other issue of course was the ice age. We were covered by glaciers that came grinding through and mashed up everything and only started to retreat about 15,000 or 14,000 years ago thereabouts, which is probably about the date of that woolly mammoth tooth.”

And if you’ve seen this tooth that professor Prince found, it’s not terribly well preserved. But it sounds like the fact that any of it survived at all is spectacular in its own way.

“You’re right. The picture he sent me of it – there’s no way in the world you or I would have thought it was anything except a weird looking rock and tossed it aside. Of course, the stories you may have heard was that he found one of these years before when fishing and said, ‘Oh, that’s a cool looking rock’ and tossed it aside. And then last winter, he was looking at some work by some colleagues and saw a picture and realized he’d been holding a mammoth tooth all those years ago. After kicking himself for a while, he was determined to go out and find another one, which is ridiculous. There’s no way you can just charge out and find another one, but he charged out and found another one the third day he went looking.”

Is there anything else then that we may be missing out on in this state because of the makeup of the rocks and soil?

“There really is no correlation, but the story certainly made me think of meteorites and meteoroids. There has been a confirmed sighting of a space rock in New Hampshire. There was a bit of flurry of attention back in 2012. There was a fellow who said he’d found one, sent it away to be tested, and we never heard from him again. So I assume they told him no, it’s not really a space rock. The problem here really isn’t geology; it’s that rocks that fall from space into the woods amongst all our other rocks it’s very hard to spot. I’m sure there are meteorites on the ground; it’s just that no one’s ever found them. Virtually all of the confirmed sightings throughout the world have either been found in a desert or in Greenland or Antarctica, somewhere like that where they’re lying in snow and easy to spot. So if anyone ever tells you they have found a piece of space rock lying in New Hampshire, you should be astonished, delighted, and skeptical.”

So very few fossils, no confirmed meteorites or meteoroids. What do we say – not that I hope this ever happens – if someone from one of these other states that has fossils and meteorites starts taunting us? What’s our comeback line? At least we’ve got…what?

“Our black flies are awesome.”

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