campus news

UB student makes rare fossil discovery

From left: James Hanna, Jonathan Hoag and Carlton E. Brett examine rocks at Penn Dixie Fossil Park and Nature Reserve in May. Photo courtesy of HNHS/Penn Dixie


Published July 13, 2023

James Hanna.
“This quarry has been excavated for 70 years, and so to find something new after all of this time was kind of shocking. So me and Jonathan having the only two in the world, that’s kind of cool. ”
James Hanna, rising junior
Department of Geology

UB undergraduate James Hanna has, as he puts it, “a few fossils.”

The rising junior geology major has searched for them since he was 5 years old and estimates his collection now stands at about 6,000 specimens.

Where does he keep them all? 

“Most are in either my garage or my basement. As you can imagine, my parents are very happy,” Hanna says with a laugh. “I try to box it up as best as I can, but that’s the one thing about rocks — they take up a lot of room.”

One of Hanna’s newest fossils will have different accommodations. It will be preserved in perpetuity at the Paleontological Research Institute’s Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, likely serving as the definitive example of a brand-new species.

Hanna discovered the rare fossil in April while digging at Penn Dixie Fossil Park and Nature Reserve in Hamburg, where he is a staff educator. Another Penn Dixie staffer, Jonathan Hoag, found a similar fossil a few days later.

Paleontology experts have since determined the two specimens are a branch of carpoid, an extinct ancestor of starfish and sea urchins that thrived in the ocean long before dinosaurs roamed the Earth. 

This branch was thought to have gone extinct between 408 to 410 million years ago during the Early Devonian Period, but their appearance at Penn Dixie, whose rock layers were deposited 382 million years ago, suggests they survived much longer — about 25 million years, give or take.

The specimens are so novel that they’re considered a new species and possibly even a new genus of carpoid.

“This find now represents the youngest known occurrence of this strange group of asymmetrical animals and extends their range by approximately 20 million years longer than was previously known,” says James Boyle, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Geology, College of Arts and Sciences, who has taught Hanna and was one of many in the paleontological community excited by the news of the discovery.

The discovery was the result of Hanna’s passion for paleontology and perseverance in fossil hunting, as well as the educational preparation he’s received at UB, says Tracy Gregg, professor and chair of the Department of Geology.

“We’re thrilled that one of our own geologists-in-training has used his energy and education to make a fundamental contribution to the field of paleontology, and we look forward to helping him advance his geological education,” Gregg says.

Hanna will be an author on the scientific paper about the discovery, along with UB alumnus Carlton E. Brett, MA ’75, a professor of geology at the University of Cincinnati. The other author will be Ronald L. Parsley, professor emeritus at Tulane University’s School of Science and Engineering, who will receive the fossils this summer to study and take professional photographs. 

“In the realm of geological time, [25 million years] is nothing. But if you actually think about how long 25 million years is — humans haven’t been on the planet for 25 million years,” Hanna says. “So to see something holding on for that period of time is extremely significant.”

Hanna’s specimen (left), which is a branch of carpoids known as a solute, will be preserved at the Paleontological Research Institute’s Museum of the Earth and serve as the holotype for a new species. Photo courtesy of HNHS/Penn Dixie. On the right is a sketch of carpoid from the Ordovician Period, found in Scotland. Image: Haplochromis used under Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

‘Never seen that before’

Hanna wasn’t looking for a new species while digging for fossils off duty with Hoag on April 17. 

He was looking for his favorite fossil, extinct marine arthropods called trilobites, and was satisfied after finding a trilobite specimen that was stretched out as opposed to rolled up. 

The trilobite was encased in a large rock, so Hanna brought it back to Penn Dixie the following day and used a saw to cut it out. Among the scrap rock, Hanna found another specimen. It looked unremarkable at first, but then he noticed its tail.

“I could tell that part was strange,” he says. “Never seen that before here.”

He shared a photo of the specimen with some friends in the paleontology community, including longtime Penn Dixie member Dan Cooper, who helped determine it was likely a carpoid.

Cooper took Hanna’s specimen to the large fossil preparation facility he runs in the Cincinnati area. Cooper’s son, Ben, prepared the fossil for scientific study with small pneumatic tools and an air abrasive machine under low air pressure. 

A few days later while awaiting his fossil’s preparation, Hanna went out searching for trilobites in the same area with Hoag again. This time Hoag, a graduate of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, found a carpoid fossil.

Hoag’s specimen was prepared by Canadian fossil expert Malcolm Thornley, another longtime Penn Dixie member. Thornely reviewed existing scientific literature and realized that this class of carpoids — known as solutes — had never previously been found in Middle Devonian Period-aged rock.

Thornley contacted Brett, the UB alumnus and University of Cincinnati professor, who confirmed his identification. 

These new carpoids can be considered a Lazarus taxon, an animal that reappears after going missing from the fossil record, says Phil Stokes, executive director of Penn Dixie and a UB alumnus, MS ’07. It’s the most significant find in Penn Dixie’s history, he adds. 

“Previous discoveries, like a trilobite with a slight variation from a sister species, were relatively minor in comparison, and did not receive much hoopla at all,” he says. 

There’s no record of carpoids ever previously being found at Penn Dixie. 

“This quarry has been excavated for 70 years, and so to find something new after all of this time was kind of shocking,” Hanna says. “So me and Jonathan having the only two in the world, that’s kind of cool.”

Using the past to learn about the future

Jonathan Hoag (left) and James Hanna found their carpoid fossils while digging off duty at the Penn Dixie site in April. Photo: Courtesy of HNHS/Penn Dixie

At Penn Dixie, you find it, you keep it — no matter how rare or significant it is. 

Still, Hanna and Hoag decided to donate their carpoid fossils to the Paleontological Research Institute. The specimens are set to make their debut for the larger scientific community at the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting in October in Pittsburgh. 

Hanna’s fossil will likely be the holotype — the single physical example of the new species. When scientists study the species and make comparisons to similar species in the future, they’ll examine Hanna’s fossil. 

For his contribution, the new species will be named after Hoag. Hanna, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in geology, says he opted to instead be an author on the scientific paper. 

“Getting it named after me would be kind of cool, but in terms of importance for my career, authorship is definitely a lot more helpful,” he says.

Hanna’s love of fossils began when his dad first brought him to Penn Dixie at the age of 5. He attended summer camps and eventually started visiting several times a week. After volunteering for a few years, he got offered a job as a staff educator, leading tours and educating visitors about how to find fossils. 

It’s more than just a hobby — Hanna says paleontology is crucial to understanding both our past and our future.

“Everything that’s alive today evolved from something that was alive in the past, so this really gives us a better understanding of our Earth’s history and climate,” he explains. “It helps us get a better understanding of what was going on in the past, and it could be helpful with what will happen in the future.”

Even so, Hanna admits it took some convincing for him to donate the carpoid fossil instead of adding it to his collection. 

“But I realized that it means a lot more to science than it means to me,” he says.