PITTSBURGH -- While on a geology class trip, an undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh came across a previously unknown genus and species of a 300-million-year-old amphibian. Now he is reveling in the international attention he is getting for his discovery.
Adam Striegel, a Pitt senior liberal studies major from White Oak, Pa., found a fossilized skull of an ancient meat-eating amphibian with a vicious set of teeth. The fossil is only the third 300-million-year-old amphibian skull ever found in the world, according to David Berman, curator of vertebrate paleontology at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
“In all my life, I’ve never found anything nearly as nice, and I’ve never seen anyone else find anything nearly as nice,” said his instructor, Charles Jones, lecturer and undergraduate advisor in Pitt’s Department of Geology and Planetary Science, who last March led his class on a field trip to a newly cut road near the Pittsburgh International Airport. As Jones pointed out the different layers and types of rock that revealed the area’s history, he told his students to look for other clues to the environmental characteristics of the region as well, like plant fossils.
Striegel picked up a rock about the size of a grapefruit on which he thought he saw the imprint of a fern and showed it to Jones. Inspecting the rock, Jones immediately knew that what Striegel had thought were fern fronds was actually a double row of jagged teeth—and the rock was actually a skull. “I knew at that moment that this would be the nicest vertebrate fossil that I would probably ever touch,” said Jones.
In May, Jones and Striegel took the fossil to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “The paleontologists were all very enthusiastic, jumping up and down and doing back flips because it’s just such a solid fossil—so well preserved, so uncrushed,” said Jones.
Coincidentally, Berman had discovered one of the only other two such amphibian skulls of that age 20 years ago in New Mexico; the other was found in Kansas.
“I was quite startled, mainly because it’s so nicely preserved—it’s almost perfectly preserved,” said Berman. “It’s missing a few parts, probably only because it was broken off a complete skeleton.”
Scientists from the museum went back and searched the area where Striegel had found the fossil, hoping to find the rest of the amphibian’s body, but they didn’t find it. “We’ll do it again in the spring, when the vegetation’s down,” said Berman. “I hate to think that we left the rest of the animal in the roadside.”
Striegel agreed to donate the fossil to the museum. After the museum’s scientists finish preparing it and publish their findings, either the genus or the species will likely be named “Striegeli.”
Striegel will receive a cast of the fossil. He intends to keep it on his desk when he becomes an elementary school teacher. “I would use it as a way to get the students interested when we get to fossils,” he says. “I think some kids would find it really interesting that there’s a whole species [and genus] named after their teacher.”
Until then, though, he’s still a college student, enjoying his 15 minutes of fame.
“I’m ecstatic,” he says, beaming. “I love it. It’s great. I think it’s the coolest thing that ever happened to me.”
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