Back in time

Published 2:53 am Monday, June 26, 2006

By By Michael Rodgers – Special to The Standard
A number of scientists from around Alabama are braving the heat in order to excavate the 35-million-year-old fossilized remains of a manatee in the Conecuh National Forest south of Andalusia.
The remains were discovered by Jimmy and Sierra Stiles, a pair of herpetologists from Auburn University. The two found the remains along a section of the Yellow River located off of Alabama Highway 137.
According to Stiles, he noticed the ribs while looking for reptiles on May 24.
Stiles said that they had seen fossilized bones before, so they knew what they were seeing.
Stiles notified personnel at the Conecuh National Forest, who then contacted scientists from around the state.
Excavation of the fossilized remains began Tuesday afternoon.
So far, the excavation has turned up several disarticulated rib pieces and fragments of vertebrae.
The size of the ribs and vertebrae have allowed for the identification of the fossil as a manatee, a large aquatic mammal that still lives in parts of Florida.
James Lamb of the McWane Science Center in Birmingham expressed similar optimism.
The dig is taking place on a narrow shelf of ground no more than seven feet wide on the banks of the Yellow River.
Although the current lack of rain has hurt farmers, it was vital to this find.
The team is also searching the bed of the river for other fossils from the manatee.
The drought has also helped in this area of the search, with the Yellow River being unusually clear from the lack of rain.
According to Lamb, the sealing off of the manatee carcass and the lack of oxygen was the key step in its fossilization, because the bacteria that breaks down tissue in the body down needs oxygen.
Fossilization is a rare process in which a body is preserved by being covered with sediment soon after death.
&#8220The fossil record for manatees is sketchy, but we're assuming that it was doing what manatees do,” Pasquill said.
Since manatees live in estuaries and need fresh water to survive, Lamb said that there are two possibilities for the location of the fossil.
The manatee could have died in the estuary and sunk to the bottom, or it could have washed out to sea before settling on the bottom.
Lamb said that the scenario would be determined by whether other fossils found in the area were from saltwater or freshwater creatures.
The age of the fossil is another issue that is still under investigation.
Lamb said that samples of the soil have been sent to a lab for the dating of microorganisms, which will provide a more exact date.
Pasquill said that the manatee is the first vertebrate fossil to come out of a National Forest in Alabama.
According to Lamb, Alabama is rich in fossils.
After the site is completely excavated, the fossils will likely be sent to the McWane Science Center in Birmingham.
Lamb said that one project the museum has in mind is a full-sized diorama, or a 3-D model display, of a half-dozen ancient Alabama habitats.
In the meantime, the excavation continues.

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