You might not know it, but Cincinnati is world famous for its rocks and fossils. Scientists have been extensively researching our city for almost 200 years. In fact, “it’s really hard to pick up a rock without a fossil in it here,” says Brenda Hunda, curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Cincinnati Museum Center. Why are so many prehistoric creatures found in the Queen City? The answer lies in the Cincinnati Arch.
About 450 million years ago, during the Earth’s Ordovician period, Cincinnati was covered by an ocean and inhabited by aquatic animals without backbones known as invertebrate fauna. Over time, the Earth’s plates shifted to create the Michigan Basin to the northwest, the Illinois Basin to the west, and the Appalachian Basin to the east. In the dead center of all three is the Cincinnati Arch, an uplift in our region that holds several layers of fossil-filled mudstone and limestone. The carved-out Cut in the Hill on I-75, for example, is surrounded by geologic deposits containing fossils. There are also plenty of state parks for fossil fiends to collect in, like Caesar Creek, or places like Trammel Park in Sharonville, which is specifically designated for fossil collecting. Amateur paleontologists who want to take it a step further can join the all-ages local group Dry Dredgers at UC, or head to the Museum Center in September for its new exhibit Ancient Worlds: Hiding in Plain Sight.
Hunda says that even though fields like paleontology are focused on the past, artifacts left behind in nature contain important wisdom for modern-day issues like climate change, conservation, and biodiversity. “The Earth has a lot of lessons it needs to teach if we just look, pay attention, watch, and learn,” she says. “I like to think of the Earth as having run every experiment already. We just have to uncover the results.”
1. Bryozoan: These fossils are easily confused for twigs or pieces of coral. Its skeleton is a porous structure that protected thousands of tiny organisms that collected food particles from the ocean.
2. Brachiopods: The most likely fossil to be found in your backyard or a local creek bed, this shelled invertebrate resembles a clam.
3. Crinoids: Also known as “sea lilies,” these animals were related to starfish and urchins. They had long arms that would filter food from the water they lived in.
4. Trilobites: “Everybody wants [to find] those, and I don’t blame them,” says Hunda. Trilobites were some of the Earth’s earliest arthropods, and most closely resemble the crabs and lobsters of today.
Several rock formations at Trammel are named after Cincinnati areas where the fossils were first found, like Corryville or Bellevue. Trammel Park’s pavilion is even in the shape of Cincinnati’s official fossil, the edrioasteroid called Isorophus cincinnatiensis.
Stop, Look Down (And All Around)
A piece of beaver scat found near the Little Miami River is the object on display in Cincinnati Parks naturalist Michael George’s office that gets the most comments. It’s something he found by following his advice to all prospective hikers: stop, look down, and all around. “It’s not uncommon to visit a park, walk a trail, and never see any wildlife out there,” George says. “But you’ll know they’re there, because I’ve seen their tracks in the mud, their droppings along the way. I see feeding damage on the plants.” For prospective explorers, George recommends the mobile app iNaturalist, which can scan items in the wild and tell you exactly which creature it came from. Next time you’re out in nature, avoid the tunnel-vision attitude of only focusing on what’s in front of your feet, and take a moment to really examine your surroundings. You never know what you might find.
Exoskeletons (1) can be found in places where an animal has feasted, or even as part of their waste product.
Errant feathers (2) occasionally make their way to the forest floor. Depending on the feather, sometimes you can identify not only what bird it’s from, but even what section of the bird’s body it was on.
It is not uncommon to find partial deer antlers (3) when hiking the trails in January and February. Male deer grow antlers in the summer and fall to allow female deer to gauge their reproductive health, before shedding them in colder weather.
“Some people are put off by animal droppings (4), but it’s interesting to take a stick and poke through to see what they’ve been eating,” George says. Sometimes you’ll find an exoskeleton. Sometimes it’s fur. You won’t know until you look.
You’ll typically find snakeskins in the summer months. There’s no regular cycle to snake shedding, but as snakes are feeding, eating, and growing, they outgrow their skin and leave it behind.