Fossils in the Big Apple and Other Urban Paleontology Adventures

There are fossils in New York’s Grand Central Station.

It’s not a traveling museum exhibit. It’s not an exhibit at all.

Hundreds of millions of years in the past, the limestone used to construct the station’s floors was formed through the accumulation of ancient marine life. You can still see impressions of some of those life forms today if you know what to look for.

Ken Lacovara and Richard Wiese find fossils at Grand Central StationAs a paleontologist, Ken Lacovara, PhD, an associate professor at Drexel, knows exactly what to look for. During a weekend in New York City, he teamed up with television host Richard Wiese to film a five-borough fossil hunt for the program “Born to Explore.”

The episode airs this Saturday, Nov. 23 on ABC television stations.

In two days of filming this summer, Lacovara and Wiese found fossils not only in the floor of Grand Central, but in the wall of Saks Fifth Avenue department store, the Bronx Courthouse, the Brooklyn Library, on the beach in Queens and at the tip of Staten Island.

Lacovara said the episode aims to link people to their ancient past and show that evidence of Earth’s rich history is all around us.

Preview the episode, “The Great Fossil Hunt”:

“Born to Explore” airs Saturdays on ABC stations nationwide. In Philadelphia, it airs on WPVI-TV(6-abc) at 11 a.m. Additional local listings are here.

Not Just New York

New York City made a great setting to find fossils hiding in plain sight – but it’s hardly the only place to look.

Lacovara takes his students at Drexel to tour downtown Philadelphia sites built with pieces of the ancient past. (That’s in addition to his active fossil dig site at a marl pit in southern New Jersey.)

How do you find a fossil in a building façade?

“First you have to look in sedimentary rocks, like limestone or sandstone,” Lacovara said. “You won’t find fossils in igneous rocks like granite or metamorphic rocks like schist. Fossils are the remnants of ancient life and the hallmark of life is order. Fossils have symmetry, pattern, and texture. Like the shells on the beach or corals in a reef — complicated objects, but not randomly shaped.”

Lacovara said most fossils that appear in building façades will be invertebrates, such as clams, brachiopods (which look like clams, but are not related), corals, bryozoans (which look like corals, but are not related), crinoids (echinoderms that look like hollow tubes in rock), and other small marine life forms.

Where to start? In Philadelphia, Lacovara said the Holy Communion Church at 2110 Chestnut St is one of his favorites: “It’s built from limestone that was once an ancient coral reef. It’s 100 percent fossils.”

Ready for your own urban fossil foraging? Watch “Born to Explore” this weekend for more tips, and happy hunting!