Rowan University announced Wednesday it plans to buy a 65-acre fossil quarry behind a strip mall in Mantua Township, New Jersey.

 

The South Jersey school's board of trustees voted this week to purchase the quarry for a reported $1.95 million from Inversand Company; the school has plans to preserve the pit for research and open an onsite science center.

Paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara, who's been working at the quarry for 13 years, has found tantalizing but preliminary evidence that the animals preserved there may have perished in the same mass die-off that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

The evidence he has unearthed so far, including bones of Cretaceous period marine crocodiles, sea turtles and sharks, raises a provocative question.

"Is that fossil bed linked to that moment in time?" Lacovara said. "We don't know yet. But that's the hypothesis that we are testing. If that turns out to be the case, this place will be not only amazing for its educational resources, but it will be of global significance."

Lacovara has been trying to save the quarry for four years, most of that time working alongside Mantua Township. He brought a preservation proposal to a township meeting in 2012 and quickly won support.

"It took one meeting, one site visit, and we all fell in love," said Michelle Bruner, coordinator of economic development for the township.

Mantua Township and has been trying to find a partner to buy and preserve the site for three years. When the township approached educational institutions about a partnership, Rowan stepped up, and Lacovara moved from his previous post at Drexel University to Rowan this fall to oversee research and education at the quarry. He is now the founding dean of the School of Earth & Environment.

Lacovara is best known for his discovery of the giant plant-eating dinosaur Dreadnoughtus, which was announced last fall.

Rowan University is set to buy the site from the Inversand Company, which mined manganese greensand for water filtration from the quarry from the 1920s until 2012. Inversand president Tom Carrocino said the company has been been operating at a loss since then to pump water out of the pit and preserve the fossils while doing a limited amount of mining. 

"We have to pump about 100,000 gallons of water a day to keep this from filling up," Carrocino said. "It's basically because we were trying to get to this event here." 

Rowan University President Ali Houshmand said the school has a vision for a summer science camp at the site, a permanent science center with classrooms and laboratories, and a more commercial visitors center.

"A place where ... kids can come in and dig and parents can come in and read papers and books, have a coffee, check their emails," Houshmand said. "That's the idea."

The site so far has welcomed more than 8,000 visitors, including school groups, Cub scouts, and nature clubs that have dug for their own fossils in the quarry.

The fourth annual community dig day at the site is planned for this Saturday.