F&M Stories

Paleontologist in the Making

Conner Minkowitz’s passion for extinct creatures like mammoths, mastodons and saber-tooth cats changed when he began studying under a retired Franklin & Marshall College paleontologist. 

“When I got to Franklin & Marshall, I discovered that invertebrates were incredibly diverse, certainly much more so than living and even extinct vertebrates with which people are more familiar,” the senior geology major says.

Minkowitz recently returned from the Geological Society of America’s Annual Meeting, in Pittsburgh. There, his poster presentation on newly discovered, geologically early arthropod fossils (invertebrate animals with exoskeletons they shed during growth) was well received.

“It’s been an experience of a lifetime. This is something that I could spend the rest of my life doing."

Conner Minkowitz, senior geology major

“Conner's poster was a great success,” says Robert Walter '75, the Dr. Earl D. & Mary E. Stage Professor of Geosciences and the Department of Earth and Environment chair. “He and Roger had lots of very interested visitors.”

Minkowitz and his adviser, Roger Thomas, John Williamson Nevin Professor of Geosciences, emeritus, are researching arthropods from the Kinzers Formation, a band of limestone and fossil-bearing shale that stretches from central Lancaster County across the Susquehanna River to York.

“Over the last couple of years, Roger has given some talks on paleontology, and I’ve been attending them as often as I can,” Minkowitz says. “From that, we got to know one another and now we are doing research together.”

In his book-lined campus office, Thomas, who in the past mainly studied shells of fossil bivalve mollusks, shows off some of the Kinzers arthropod fossils found by local collector Kerry Matt. They are estimated to be more than 500 million years old.

“These fossils represent the early phase of animal evolution,” Thomas says. “They’re organisms that were living at the time when animals – animals as opposed to single-celled organisms – were first diversifying.”

Minkowitz and Thomas are preparing to submit an article to the Journal of Paleontology on results of their research on these early arthropods.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the places where scientifically significant fossils have been found are now inaccessible for a variety of reasons, being on private property and largely overgrown,” the Hanover, N.J. student says. “A lot of them have been developed. Kerry Matt found this specimen and several others from a basement excavation that is now a suburban home.”

Thomas says the earliest arthropod fossils represent organisms that were not yet quite crustaceans, such as the crabs, lobsters and shrimps of today. 

“The Kinzers Formation has long had an international reputation for being one of the few places in the world where early Cambrian fossils with thin skeletons and soft parts preserved can be found—this was a special period of time in the history of Earth, when a wide radiation of marine organisms occurred for the first time,” Walter says.

Although less abundant, diverse and well-preserved than fossils found at two World Heritage Sites – China’s Chengjiang (522 million years old) and British Columbia’s Burgess Shale (508 million years old), Kinzers fossils are “very good,” Thomas says.  Being about 512 million years old, they are scientifically important, as intermediates in evolution between organisms found at the other two localities.

“A lot of these specimens haven’t been described or recognized from the Kinzers in any capacity until recently,” Minkowitz says. “We’re assembling more comprehensive knowledge of what exactly the Kinzers Formation has to offer.”

While at the GSA meeting, the promising young paleontologist networked with professors and students from schools in the United States and overseas as he prepares for graduate school.

“It’s been an experience of a lifetime,” Minkowitz says. “This is something that I could spend the rest of my life doing. I’m grateful for the opportunity to work on these specimens.”

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