`Fossil Man' shares his avocation

An engineer from Ellicott City enjoys discovering and collecting specimens - and spreading the word


June 23, 2006|By JANET GILBERT

Imagine you have some pieces to a puzzle. But you don't know what it is - there's no box with a picture. You don't even know if it's all there. There might even be some pieces from a different puzzle mixed in. Now you've got to sort it and put it all together."

This is how Ellicott City resident Jim Patzer, 48, describes his unusual hobby of fossil hunting.

Patzer, along with his wife, Ginny, and daughter, Laura, discovered the hobby while vacationing 11 years ago in a cabin on the Chesapeake Bay, outside Prince Frederick.

"We became curious that first day, watching all these people walking up and down the beach, stopping every now and then to pick something up," he said. He struck up a conversation with some of them and discovered they were searching for prehistoric sharks' teeth. The Patzers decided to go on a walk to see if they could find some.

"Laura was only 4 and really good at spotting them," Patzer said. "At first, we thought it was because she was closer to the ground, or her eyes were in better shape."

He added: "It got to the point where we couldn't help but see them. You acquire an eye for it."

Patzer began reading about fossils and exploring the cliffs of Calvert County with his family. The Patzers visited the Calvert Marine Museum and began networking with other fossil fans through resources such as the Calvert Marine Museum Fossil Club and Maryland Geological Society.

"You realize there are other fossils to be found, other locations - my eyes lit up," Patzer said. Clubs provide information, as well as access to fossil sites, which may not otherwise be open to the public.

Patzer describes a fossil as being a "remnant of something living at least 10,000 years ago," quickly revising his wording to "something that showed that something was living 10,000 years ago." Answers.com defines fossils in a remarkably similar manner: "A remnant or trace of an organism of a past geologic age, such as a skeleton or leaf imprint, embedded and preserved in the earth's crust."

Patzer, who has made a number of presentations on fossils, shifts to teaching mode. Handing over a fossil, he asks me to identify it. I think it looks like a small bird, or perhaps a turtle.

It is coprolite - fossilized dung, a perfect example of something that showed that something was living 10,000 years ago. Through its content, coprolite can provide information on the diet, feeding behavior, and habitat of prehistoric animals.

Fossils can be found easily in Maryland, and it is a hobby the family can enjoy. "All you need are some comfortable old shoes and ... baggies," Patzer said.

Wherever there is erosion or movement of the earth's top layer - whether accomplished by man or nature - there could be fossils. Road cuts through mountains are good places to search, as are mines, sides of a hill after a downpour, or seaside cliffs. Something as simple as putting in a pool or decorative pond can expose a fossil layer of sedimentary rock about 10 to 12 feet below the surface of the earth, depending on where you live.

"We [fossil hunters] see mud, and we get excited," said Patzer. "Torrential downpours make for spectacular days for surface-collecting."

Patzer has found fossils up and down the East Coast, as well as in Nebraska, Arizona, California, Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Dakota. An engineer by day at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Patzer enjoys volunteering and sharing his knowledge.

Gayle Gavazzi, Mount View Middle School's science team leader, has brought Patzer in to speak to sixth-grade science pupils for the past four years. Last year, she presented him with an original silk-screen T-shirt with the words, "Fossil Man."

"It's very hands-on," Gavazzi said of Patzer's presentation to the middle-schoolers. "He brings some samples they get to touch, and some they can just look at because they're fragile or rare."

Gavazzi says that middle school pupils are young enough to enjoy collecting things. Patzer talks about how he started his fossil collection, and the fact that many fossils can be found in Maryland. Patzer has samples of everything from marine invertebrates from the Cretaceous period to vertebrate fossils from the Miocene epoch.

"This year, a couple of kids even stayed through lunch to ask questions," Gavazzi said.

Patzer's hobby has grown with his interest. Since 2003, he has attended a fossil show held each year in Tuscon, Ariz., where dealers from all over the world come to exhibit (http:--www.tucson showguide.com/tsg/). When he found most resources on fossil hunting in the White River Badlands to be written in a way that only scientists or professionals would understand, he began documenting the area on his own. He is not sure if he will search for a publisher for his manuscript, "Fossils of the White River Badlands," or make it available as an informal guide for fellow fossil enthusiasts.

There is one downside to the hobby, however. Patzer said that when his family vacations near the water, he purposely seeks locations where there aren't loads of fossils - because he can't help scanning for them while walking along a beach. "It's really hard," he said, "I can easily forget all about the dolphins, the sunsets."

He added: "It's like treasure hunting."


Emily Biondi, a 2001 Mount Hebron High School graduate and the subject of last week's column, was awarded the gold medal in the long jump, and silver medals in the 100-meter backstroke, 5K run, and the 200-meter sprint at the U.S. Transplant Games in Louisville, Ky., last weekend.

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