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Evolution in the Northeast

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Notable Fossil Finds:

  • In 1966, more than 2,000 dinosaur footprints were discovered in Rocky Hill, Conn. This is the largest dinosaur trackway ever found in North America. (See it at Dinosaur State Park.)

  • Since 1999, two mastodons have been excavated in New York state, one in Hyde Park and another in Chemung County. Excavations of a third mastodon continue in North Java.

  • In 1960, a fossil imprint of an early winged vertebrate was found in an abandoned quarry in North Bergen, N.Y. The find, dated to 50 million years before the first birds, helped revolutionize theories on the origins of flight.

  • In 1849, railroad construction workers unearthed fossilized bones of a 10,000-12,500-year-old beluga whale near Charlotte, Vt. (See it at UVM's Perkins Museum.)

  • In 1898, the bones of Rutiodon, a crocodile-like reptile from the Triassic period, were found in Simsbury, Conn.

  • Fossil remains of Stegomus, a Triassic-period armor-plated reptile that probably resembled an armadillo, were discovered near the Quinnipiac River in Fair Haven, Conn.

  • Sea scorpions have been found in "Eurypterid pools" near Buffalo, N.Y., and in southern Herkimer County, N.Y. (See them at the Buffalo Museum of Science.)

  • Three trilobite species found in Rhode Island provide evidence that the state was once joined with Africa, the only other place which has this same grouping of trilobites.

Endangered Species:

Photo of Shortnose sturgeon The following animal and plant species are among those listed in the federal government's register of endangered species in this region.

 Shortnose sturgeon

Shortnose sturgeon (fish)

  • Appearance: Primitive-looking, olive-brown fish (three feet long)
  • Habitat: Large river channels, estuaries, open ocean
  • Threat: Overfishing, habitat loss, water pollution
  • Fast fact: Sturgeon are among the oldest-living fish species.

Dwarf wedgemussel (invertebrate)

  • Appearance: Brown/yellowish-brown, oval-shaped bivalve (1.5 inches)
  • Habitat: Atlantic coast freshwater river and stream bottoms
  • Threat: Water pollution
  • Fast fact: Freshwater mussels cleanse their ecosystems. Declining populations signal unhealthy water quality.

Sandplain gerardia (plant)

  • Appearance: A relative of the snapdragon (four to eight inches)
  • Habitat: Sandy, open areas of coastal plains (Cape Cod, Long Island, Rhode Island)
  • Threat: Habitat loss
  • Fast fact: This wildflower's pink or purple flowers bloom only one day each year, usually in late-August/early-September.

Atlantic salmon (fish)

  • Appearance: Bright and silvery, with a bluish-green back. They turn dark gray to reddish brown in freshwater (30 inches long, 7-12 pounds)
  • Habitat: Develop in freshwater rivers, feed in open marine waters, and return to freshwater to spawn
  • Threat: Dams that block migration, forest clearing (siltation, shade reduction), agriculture
  • Fast fact: Escaping fish from Atlantic salmon aquaculture operations threaten the genetic integrity of the wild species and make them more vulnerable to disease.


Secrets of ancient geography are revealed by the fossil record. Bivalves, corals, and trilobites -- among the Northeast's older, more prevalent fossils -- were warm-water creatures. This means that most, if not all, of the region was covered by tropical seas about 400 million years ago. The Northeast was actually located in the southern hemisphere and drifting toward the equator. Imagine a hot, humid climate like that of modern-day Florida!

Around this time, prominent mountain ranges began forming. The Green and White Mountains in Vermont and New Hampshire, and the Adirondacks in New York, were probably much taller and craggier back then. They have been changed over time by erosion.

Flash-forward several hundred million years. Ice sheets -- thousands of feet thick in some places -- covered much of the region from about 3 million years ago until just 11,000 years ago. These glaciers erased much of the fossil record in the Northeast. Their immense weight compacted underlying rocks, and the succession of advances and retreats scoured the surface.

While this helps to explain the scarcity of larger, intact fossils in most of the Northeast, some areas contain fossil bones and imprints that confirm that dinosaurs and mammoths once roamed the land. You can find layered rock deposits -- the kind that preserve fossils well -- in the Connecticut Valley; western New York, especially the Great Lakes Plain; and Rhode Island's Narragansett River Basin.

Explore Evolution online at www.pbs.org/evolution
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