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Summertime and the digging is easy

This time of year, it’s common to see kids digging in the sand with colorful plastic buckets, shovels and sifters. They can be found all over New Jersey’s ocean and bay beaches.

But one lucky group will be digging in landlocked Mantua Township in Gloucester County, far from the sea. Instead of building sand castles, these kids will be excavating fossilized shark teeth, sponges, shells, fish bones and more.

They’re camping at the Jean and Ric Edelman Fossil Park, a former sand quarry that turned out to be one of New Jersey’s fossil hot spots and was purchased by Rowan University last fall. Over the course of two weeks, 120 children ages 7-12 will learn what it’s like to be a paleontologist.

“We’re treating them like little scientists,” said Heather Simmons, associate director of the Edelman Fossil Park. Campers will be equipped with plastic digging tools – basically, beach toys - because metal tools can damage fragile fossils. Professional geologists and paleontologists will instruct them.

The “Geo Explorers” camp is just one of many community outreach projects at the Edelman Fossil Park, which aims to become New Jersey’s premier fossil destination.

In addition to a university research facility, the Edelman Fossil Park plans to build an interactive museum open year-round to anyone from the public who wants to dig fossils. The facility is scheduled to open in 2020, along with a nature trail and dinosaur-themed playground.

In the meantime, the Edelman Fossil Park is whetting the public’s appetite with events like the Community Dig Day, held each September. During dig days, some 1,300 people flock to the fossil site to try their hand at paleontology.

This year’s community dig will be held Sept. 23, and Heather expects the usual high demand for tickets. “It will sell out in minutes,” she predicted.

“There’s a huge unmet demand for this kind of authentic experience for families,” she added. “You don’t get much more authentic than being able to dig for fossils on your own.”

One advantage of the Rowan University site is that the digging is easy. Unlike some fossil-rich areas where prehistoric remains are encased in rock, New Jersey’s Inner Coastal Plain region offers soft, sandy soil known locally as greensand or marl.

“Consider this: What we’ve got here is a 65 million year old beach,” said Heather. “Pretty much anyone willing to get their hands dirty will find something.”

Sixty-five million years ago, Mantua Township – along with the rest of southern New Jersey - was at the bottom of a shallow sea populated by giant crocodiles, sea turtles and swimming reptiles like mosasaurs.  On nearby land were dinosaurs, which occasionally died and were washed out to sea.

Over time the sea receded, leaving the remains of many sea creatures and some land dinosaurs. The world’s first nearly complete dinosaur skeleton – a Hadrosaurus – was discovered in 1858 in nearby Haddonfield.

Mosasaurs, described as giant swimming Komodo dragons, were first discovered at the former Inversand quarry - now the Edelman Fossil Park - in 1961. They’re still being found today by paleontologists working in the research section of the fossil park.

“A lot of people don’t realize that South Jersey is the original home of dinosaur paleontology in New Jersey,” said Heather.

To find out more about the Edelman Fossil Park and New Jersey’s fossil history, go to the Rowan University website at

Anyone interested in attending events at the Edelman Fossil Park should click on the “Learn More” link and complete the online form to get on the fossil park’s email list. Those receiving Rowan’s emails will get links to registration for high-demand events like the community fossil dig and Geo Explorers camp.

And for more information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at or contact me at



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