Potsdam students study marine environment rocks & fossils in U.S. and Canada


Three SUNY Potsdam geology students and their professor spent part of their summer collecting rock and fossil samples from West Virginia to Canada and will now document changes in marine environments that occurred as the Appalachian Mountains began to form and the effect of those changes on the organisms that lived in the shallow sea.

Assistant Professor of Geology Dr. Lisa Amati and junior John Armitage of Clifton Park,

senior Nick Middlebrook of Poughkeepsie and senior Amy Smith of Batavia studied rocks and fossils in West Virginia, along the western margin of the Adirondacks between Watertown and Herkimer and in the Lake Simcoe region, approximately two hours north of Toronto, Canada. They collected 1,600 pounds of rock during their excursions.

They also spent two days as visiting researchers at the Royal Ontario Museum.

“The curators at the ROM were gracious enough to allow us to visit their collections of invertebrate fossils. We were able to see specimens from one of the most important fossil localities in the world – the Burgess Shale – and borrow fossil specimens to aid in research,” noted Dr. Amati.

Now that they are back on campus, Dr. Amati and the students will spend two semesters working in the lab studying limestone samples that will allow them to interpret water depth, water temperature, wave energy, storm frequency and oxygen levels.

“We collected specimens from each succeeding layer to see how the environments changed through time,” said Dr. Amati. “Then we collect hundreds of fossils through the same rock layers to see how the animals responded to changes in their environment. Some moved out of area in order to stay in their preferred habitat, which allowed other animals to move in and colonize the area.”

Middlebrook, a geology major, said he was pleasantly surprised by the independence he was given in his research and enjoyed rubbing shoulders with field experts.

“The best experience of the trip was being able to work with experts in the field of Ordovician Paleoecology in the very setting they study,” he said.

Smith, also a geology major, echoed his sentiments. “My favorite part of what we did was when we actually found great fossils and the eagerness with which James Dick Aggregates (the quarrying company we worked closely with) worked with us and allowed us into their site,” Smith said.

Armitage noted this experience will help him a great deal in attaining his career goals.

“My personal goal is to become a paleontologist,” said the geology major with biology minor. “This will not only look good on a resume, but has given me early experience in the field as well as an idea of how to, or in some cases how not to, run a field season. I have a much better idea of what to expect from grad school and professionals. Ideally, this research will culminate in a presentation at an upcoming Geological Society of America meeting.”

Armitage recommends every student take part in some kind of hands-on research experience during his or her college career.

“It is a fantastic way to explore and apply everything you have learned in the classroom,” he said. “I have personally walked away a more confident and rounded student and person after this experience. I would recommend this sort of work to anyone who is looking to grow on multiple levels, and have a lot of fun while doing it.”

The fieldwork research was done with the support of a three-year National Science Foundation grant.

For more information about SUNY Potsdam’s numerous enrichment opportunities, visit www.potsdam.edu/academics/specialprograms/index.cfm/.