Prehistoric Finger Lakes – Fossils from the Devonian “age of fishes”

story and photos by Arthur Masloski

Virtually everything we love about the Finger Lakes Region in its modern form is the direct result of events that occurred during the Ice Age, between 2 million and 11,000 years ago. During this time, glaciers, some of which were two miles thick, advanced and retreated over the region, gouging out the long, deep Finger Lakes. Everything from the lakes and gorges to the region’s unique geology and microclimates that allow the wine industry to prosper owes itself to this process. 

It is also because of these glacial events that you’ll never find a dinosaur fossil in the Finger Lakes. Much of the region’s catalogue of deep time would have been pulverized by these glacial events, erased from history. But not all was lost: The Finger Lakes still has a rich assortment of fossils from a time long before the first dinosaur, the Devonian Period, which lasted from 418-361 million years ago.

If you want to find fossils in the Finger Lakes, your best bet is to explore the lake shores and cliffs of the region.

To imagine yourself in the Finger Lakes during the Devonian, you’ll have to imagine yourself in a boat. Most of New York, would have been covered by a vast, shallow sea, and located near the equator. Aside from the abundant marine animal fossils, the region’s aquatic past is also evidenced by salt deposits. There are four salt mines currently operating in the Finger Lakes, where the salt left behind from the evaporation of those Devonian seas is harvested for our use today. 

Below the surface of the Devonian Sea would have been a biodiverse coral reef teaming with life. Indeed, more than 400 fossil species from the region have been found so far. Most of the fossils you’re likely to find in the Finger Lakes are “shells,” various mollusks such as bivalves, gastropods, brachiopods, nautiloids and ammonoids. Crinoids, known as sea lilies, looked like plants but are animals, and their stems and stem segments are abundant in the region. Bryozoans and sponges are there, along with tabulate and rugose corals. Perhaps the most familiar prehistoric animal from the Devonian that you’re likely to find are trilobites, marine arthropods that resembled isopods. All these animals persist to this day, except for trilobites and ammonoids, which are completely extinct. 

The Devonian is also known as “the age of fishes,” and fishes would have swum New York’s shallow seas as well, although their remains are rarely preserved in the region. These fishes would have included sharks, lobe-finned fishes and placoderms, an extinct group of fishes known for their bony, armored plating around the head and neck. Some placoderms were enormous, with Dunkleosteus reaching a length of 20 feet. Equally bizarre would have been the eurypterids, or sea scorpions. Some of these aquatic arthropods could reach a length of eight feet, the largest arthropods to ever exist. The species Eurypterus remipes is the official New York state fossil. 

On land there would have been no flowering plants, no flying insects and no vertebrate life yet established. Animal life on land would have been limited to arachnids, wingless insects and various other invertebrates. But this is the period when the first tetrapods (land-living vertebrates) would have begun venturing onto land from the sea. 

The Devonian is also when plants began to take hold of the land, and when the first forests developed. Roots, seeds, leaves and woody tissue all evolved during the Devonian. Primitive plants like ferns, horsetails and club mosses can all still be found growing in the modern forests of the Finger Lakes.

All it takes is a casual stroll along the lake and a sharp eye ... to spot fossils.

If you want to find fossils in the Finger Lakes, your best bet is to explore the lake shores and cliffs of the region. All it takes is a casual stroll along the lake and a sharp eye. Various fossil shells and crinoid stems erode from the cliffs or wash up on the shore. Look for larger rocks with obvious cracks and seams; these can be split open to reveal hidden treasures encased inside. For a guaranteed fossil-hunting experience, Staghorn Cliffs at Skaneateles Lake is a popular spot with an abundance of staghorn coral fossils jutting visibly from the cliff face – but note that collecting them is prohibited. Likewise, there are many quarries around the Finger Lakes with fossil deposits, but most of them are privately owned and cannot be accessed without permission.

Without question, the best place to see, learn and get more information about Finger Lakes fossils is at the Paleontological Research Institution’s Museum of the Earth in Ithaca. The museum spans the various ages of Earth’s history, but has a particularly excellent display of Devonian fossils, selected from PRI’s collection of over seven million fossil specimens. These fossils include various placoderm fishes, trilobites, crinoids and sea scorpions, as well as more recent fossils like the Hyde Park Mastodon. At Museum of the Earth you can have your own fossils identified, learn more about where to find fossils and even join fossil-collecting field trips, which often allow access to otherwise inaccessible places. While you’re there, make sure to grab a copy of the Field Guide to the Devonian Fossils of New York by Karl Wilson, an invaluable guide to have when looking for New York fossils.

Growing up in the Finger Lakes, I was a bit bummed that all I could find were fossil shells and no Tyrannosaurus skulls, but with age and knowledge I have come to appreciate what the Finger Lakes has to offer. The Devonian was an ancient and important time when the things we’re familiar with today were just getting their start: the first plants, the first terrestrial life, coral reefs teaming with giant armored fishes and sea scorpions. It is every bit as mentally stimulating and romantic as any other age of Earth’s history, and we have it all on glorious display, right here in our Finger Lakes. 

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