Lucky SUNY Potsdam Student Finds Rare Fossil & Holds Gold Bar on Geology Department Field Trip


Dr. Christopher Kelson, left, and Owen Brown, right, pose on the SUNY Potsdam campus with the rare Anomalocaris fossil they unearthed in Nevada, and a textbook illustration of the marine creature.

Owen Brown already thought his summer field trip was pretty cool—the senior geology major at SUNY Potsdam got to travel out West for the first time, and was gaining valuable field experience as an undergraduate.

But then the Beekmantown, N.Y., native was lucky enough to unearth an extremely rare fossil from the Cambrian period at a Utah dig site. Just a few days later, he had a gold bar worth nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in his hands.

“That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said. “This is definitely something we couldn’t do in the classroom. Having the opportunity to be hands-on right there was an awesome experience.”

Dr. Christopher R. Kelson, an assistant professor of geology at SUNY Potsdam, led a group of seven students in his “Geology of the Great Basin” class to Utah and Nevada from July 26 to Aug. 6. The group traveled to see geologic formations, caves and mining operations in an intensive hands-on learning environment.

“The whole point of the class was to show students the incredibly varied and rich geologic history of the Western U.S., from the volcanic and sedentary rocks to the topography and caves and the gold, silver and copper mines. Geologically speaking, they saw a little bit of a lot of stuff,” Kelson said. “The students walked away with a better appreciation for the possibilities of what you can do with a SUNY Potsdam geology degree.”

While the class was searching through rock chunks at a Wheeler Shale exposure in the House Mountain Range in Nevada, Brown was fortunate enough to find a very rare fossil of a 500 million-year-old invertebrate layered on top of a pile of fossilized trilobites. The claw-like feeding appendage of a Cambrian Anomalocaris, a long-extinct marine species that fed on the tiny trilobites, was an extremely lucky find.

“In the last 30 or 40 years, only a half a dozen partial specimens of these creatures have been found,” Dr. Kelson said. “It’s like finding a T-rex tooth. It’s that kind of rare.”

Brown said he treasures the fossil, which the student found at the “A New Dig” collecting locality.

“This was the largest and most fierce predator in the early Cambrian period, but it was an invertebrate with no bones, so it was hard to preserve,” the student said. “Its name means odd shrimp, and it could grow to a meter long.”

Later on in the field trip, Kelson brought his students on a guided tour of the Ruby Hill Gold Mine in Eureka, Nev., where they were afforded the rare opportunity to watch the gold be cast into bars. Security was tight, but students were able to watch as workers poured a five-gallon bucket filled with gold ore into a 2,200-degree furnace. After pouring the gold into a mold and pounding it, the miners allowed students—including Owen Brown—to hold the huge cast gold bar, which was called a gold button because of its shape.

“It was still warm when I was holding it,” Brown said.

Weighing in at 42 pounds, the button consisted of approximately 600 troy ounces of gold and was worth more than $722,000.

“I’ve worked in the gold mining industry for 20 years, and this is only the second gold pour that I’ve ever seen,” Kelson said. “I told the students they will probably never have this opportunity again.”

SUNY Potsdam’s geology department is well known for its student field research opportunities, both in the Adirondacks and the St. Lawrence Valley during the school year and around the continent in the summer.

Founded in 1816, and located on the outskirts of the beautiful Adirondack Park, The State University of New York at Potsdam is one of America’s first 100 colleges. SUNY Potsdam currently enrolls approximately 4,350 undergraduate and graduate students. Home to the world-renowned Crane School of Music, SUNY Potsdam is known for its handcrafted education, challenging liberal arts and sciences core, excellence in teacher training, and leadership in the performing and visual arts.