Woolwich scientist a real-life ‘rock star’

By Jean Redstone

Dr. Kenneth Lacovara of Woolwich is a bona fide, famous, nationally-acclaimed rock star.  The kind of rock star who is on a first name basis with a star character in the film, “Jurassic World” and who has traveled our world on adventures of discovery.

feature kenneth lacovara w Dreadnoughtus right tibia web
Lacovara on the Argentine dig, lying next to the tibia (a lower leg bone) of Dreadnoughtus.

But Bon Jovi and every other musician can rest easy. Lacovara, who holds a Ph.D. in geology and expertise in paleontology, literally finds fossil treasures in rocks, in boulders, in geologic formations and in their surroundings.

He is acclaimed most recently for his discovery and recovery in southern Argentina in 2005-2009 of what has been called the world’s largest, significantly complete, dinosaur skeleton. Last year Lacovara revealed his official findings publicly and dinophobes the world over learned that the creature was also the heaviest known dinosaur of all those whose mass can be calculated.

Lacovara named  his find Dreadnoughtus schrani, figuring that a creature who measured 85 feet long and weighed around 65 tons had nothing to fear. The word “dreadnought” means “fear nothing” and the schrani honors a benefactor of the fossil dig.

Amazingly, the skeleton Lacovara and his crew discovered, that 85-foot long, 65 ton behemoth, had not yet finished growing when it died. Just as amazing, there were two of the sauropods discovered at the same cretaceous-era site.

The discoveries propelled Lacovara into the limelight of paleontology. He has been featured on the ABC TV series “Born to Explore” and on PBS TV’s “American Graduate Day” in a profile on becoming a scientist. Perhaps more important to his future, though, is his move from Drexel University, Philadelphia, to Rowan University in Glassboro.

feature Dreadnoughtus schrani webWhen asked where he was born, Lacovara happily answered, “I’m a New Jersey boy. I was born in Pleasantville, but we moved early to Linwood and I grew up in Linwood.” He and his wife, Jean, and son, Rudyard (“Yes, like the author,” Lacovara offered, obviously used to the question). Rudyard is in second grade.

His location in Woolwich means easy access to Rowan University, where Lacovara has been named Director of the Rowan Fossil Quarry, an actual paleontological dig in Mantua Township. Formally owned by Inversand, a company that quarried marl (a green sand used in fertilizers and filters), the quarry was bought by Rowan, the purchase facilitated by Mantua.

Lacovara praised Rowan, Inversand and the township for saving a quarry that, even during operations, was always available for paleontology studies. In addition to Director of the Fossil Quarry, Lacovara has been charged with founding and directing a new school at Rowan University, the School of Earth Sciences, where geology and paleontology may encourage other “rock stars” to flourish.

It seems a fortuitous pairing for the ambitiously-expanding university and the home boy explorer. Rowan enlarges its reach and Lacovara can concentrate on the apparently ubiquitous fossils under the fields, farms and feet of South Jersey.

So just what did the Dreadnoughtus era landscape look like for the location Lacovara and his neighbors now inhabit? “It didn’t look like anything,” Lacovara quickly said. “Gloucester County didn’t exist. New Jersey didn’t exist. It was all under water.

“The Mesozoic was very, very warm and sea level was about 300 feet higher than it is now. Most all New Jersey was under water. The Gulf of Mexico rose across the land and connected with the Arctic Ocean, dividing America into two big islands. It was so warm there was no ice at the poles and the East Coast (of today) was under the ocean,” Lacovara said.

Lacovara at the Rowan Fossil Quarry, speaking with visitors.
Lacovara at the Rowan Fossil Quarry, speaking with visitors.

“Gloucester County would be offshore by 10 miles or more, with the coastline somewhere around where I95 is today. We know dinosaurs lived strictly on land, so only marine creatures roamed here,”  Lacovara added.

Among the marine fauna was the sea lizard Mosasaurus, and if you have seen “Jurassic World”, you were terrified by Mosasaurus. That’s the creature who rises from the ocean park pen to grab a shark to the delight of audiences.

“It was a giant, monster lizard,” Lacovara said. “Think of a Komodo dragon as long as a big bus, with a mouthful of teeth. A row of the teeth are backwards, so you can’t get out,” he said, sounding just a tad like a kid delighted by a scare.

You could be walking over a Mosasaur right now. There are a number of unexpectedly interesting fossils in New Jersey. There are the marine fossils, like the sea turtles that grew to “a yard across” and the vary nasty-looking marine crocodile Thoracosaurus “found a few years ago, 18 feet long, at Rowan Fossil Quarry,“ Lacovara recounted.  Thoracosaurus waddled in and out of the ocean shore pointing a long snout crammed with teeth, probably at the sea turtles.

“The base food chain was algae, kelp, plankton,” Lacovara said. Residents in South Jersey, especially the “people who work the land, farmers, gardeners, companies that dig ditches” often come across “bones, teeth, fossil clams and other marine specimens,” he said. Clams, especially.

But also in this area are the discovered fossils of more substantial animals, animals that came upon the shores of the New Jersey oceanside and died. “We find the occasional land area dinosaur in what was once water. They died at the Pennsylvania beach, decay, fill up with gas, and float out to sea.

“We call them ‘bloat and float’ and you never find a whole dinosaur in New Jersey,  just pieces.” Could be they bloated and floated and were eaten by a mosasaur or thoracosaur.

Southern New Jersey is home to the very first significant dinosaur skeleton found in the world, the Hadrosaurus, discovered in Haddonfield in 1858. It has its own museum now.

Hadrosaurs are plant eaters, but have you  heard of T. rex – Tyrannosaurus rex, fierce and fiercely-toothed predator? “Everyone’s familiar with T. rex,” opined Lacovara, “but there are many more in the Tyrannosaur family. The very first skeleton of a tyranosaur, the Dryptosaurus, was found in 1866 at what is now called Ceres Park in Mantua.

“There have been other dinosaur finds in Barnsboro, Mullica Hill, Pedricktown. A mosasaur, Clydastes, was found in Swedesboro in the late 1800s,” Lacovara said.

So while it’s not exactly likely you’ll find a dinosaur, it’s not particularly improbable, either. What does a person with a potential fossil do?

“I’m frequently asked that question,” Lacovara admitted. “I tell people to get pictures of what they found but that 90 percent are not going to be fossils. You can tweet it out online and ask a paleontologist to respond.  And they will. Or if you’re pretty sure it’s a fossil, go to the Rowan.edu site and submit an inquiry.”

Fossils will be found in sedimentary rock, not granite or other  hard rock, and the rock has to be the right age (absolutely ancient as opposed to a few decades) Lacovara explained. “And a fossil has order, symmetry, texture and pattern. It has to look generally like something that was alive.”

This area may well teem with undiscovered fossils, according to Lacovara, which could explain his affinity for his home state. “If South Jersey were to turn into a desert, there would be more exposure and we’d find fossils everywhere.” To him, that’s a happy scenario.

Right now his best avenue for finding local fossils is the Rowan Fossil Quarry, where, he said, “Everybody who digs there comes up with fossils.” Currently, the quarry opens to the public only once a year but, as director, Lacovara plans to change that.

“We’re planning to open it to regular hours eventually, it’s one of our goals,” he said. “I see science as having two-parts. First it’s a process of asking questions about your world and second, it’s done by people. We want to personalize science for people, to show it as a viable pathway (to knowledge).

“Science is the only way humans have devised to understand our world.”

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