Fossil Hunters as Tourists? Report: Penn Dixie’s ‘Annual Dig’ for fossils has $32k local impact

BY FRANK PARLATO;

Fossil hunting as tourism? Study shows fossil hunters come to WNY and spend money … and take home fossils.
Fossil hunting as tourism? Study shows fossil hunters come to WNY and spend money … and take home fossils.

recent report conducted by the Hamburg Natural History Society (HNHS) which estimates the economic impact on the local economy of a fossil hunting event held this spring, offers an entirely new perspective on the region’s vast fossil wealth being converted into tourism dollars.

The event studied was held at HNHS’s fossil park, the Penn Dixie Paleontological & Outdoor Education Center (Penn Dixie), in Blasdell NY.

The in house study, authored by HNHS Director David Hanewinckel, with assistance from HNHS Executive Director Phil Stokes, and Dr. Roger Levine, an independent consultant formerly of the American Institutes for Research, concluded that Penn Dixie’s annual “Dig with the Experts”, held on May 21, pumped $32,000 into the coffers of local businesses in Hamburg and its environs.

New fossils finds - such as this lobe fish - may provide a new window into the Mid Devonian marine environment.
New fossils finds – such as this lobe fish – may provide a new window into the Mid Devonian marine environment.

Paleontologists from the Cincinnati area supervised a fossil dig as 165 participants collected marine fossils of trilobites and brachiopods, etched into 380 million-year-old rocks at the site.

The report estimated spending for lodgings, restaurants, and area attractions by attendees, who came from a dozen states plus Ontario, in arriving at their $32,000 estimated figure.

About 40 percent of the dig’s attendees traveled from outside the Buffalo area; a similar percentage were first-time visitors to Penn Dixie.

Our grandpa? The ancestor of all terrestrial vertebrates – including man?
Our grandpa? The ancestor of all terrestrial vertebrates – including man?

In a sense, the report clearly speaks to the larger impact of what fossil tourism in Western New York might mean to the local economy, a form of tourism dependent on collectors removing fossils they find from the area and bringing them home.

Penn Dixie has averaged from 12,000 – 20,000 visitors per year, according to published reports. To date, this year, visitors have come from 31 states and four countries who travel to the 54 acre site in the Blasdell, a village of 2,553 people, located in the northern part of the town of Hamburg, just south of the city of Lackawanna. Penn Dixie, if not the only, is likely the village’s largest tourism attraction.

In fact, Penn Dixie was recognized as the top fossil park in the U.S. following a 2011 study published by the Geological Society of America.

Only eight species of lobefish remain in the sea, including the "living fossil" fish, the coelacanth. During the Devonian, the ray-finned and the lobe finned bony fish chose separate destinies, with the ray finned remaining in the seas where they are today, some 30,000 species strong. The lobefish used their fleshy fins to walk on land. Fossils from the era when fish began to walk on land are as likely to be found in WNY as anywhere else on earth.
Only eight species of lobefish remain in the sea, including the “living fossil” fish, the coelacanth. During the Devonian, the ray-finned and the lobe finned bony fish chose separate destinies, with the ray finned remaining in the seas where they are today, some 30,000 species strong. The lobefish used their fleshy fins to walk on land. Fossils from the era when fish began to walk on land are as likely to be found in WNY as anywhere else on earth.

The attraction for out of town visitors is the collection of fossils from the Devonian geologic period (408 to 360 million years ago) when the land which is now Western New York was near the equator and covered by a shallow, tropical, inland sea.

In addition to Penn Dixie, which has a supply of what may be literally millions of fossils spread over 54 acres of shale buried on their site – a former quarry which had been mined 10 feet below surface – there are other areas, especially along 18 Mile Creek, and the Lake Erie shores, which have rich fossil wealth exposed on the surface in natural settings.

Western New York is the home of some of the most fossiliferous sequences of middle Devonian strata in the world.

Two species of trilobite — Phacops and Greenops — found at Penn Dixie.
Two species of trilobite — Phacops and Greenops — found at Penn Dixie.

Most of the fossils throughout the area consist of marine invertebrate species, but there are occasional rare and spectacular finds of vertebrate (mainly boney fish) and plant fossils.

At Penn Dixie collectors keep the fossils they find, which are usually extinct trilobites and brachiopods.

There does exist – and this is part of the attraction – the hope of finding not only fossils of plants and bony fish but the ‘half fish’ that may reveal more of how certain boney fish, classified as lobefish, left the seas and began to use fins to walk on land.

The lobe fish ultimately evolved into amphibians, reptiles, including dinosaurs, and mammals, including man.

The lobefish developed fleshy pectoral and pelvic fins into legs and evolved into a half fish which crawled on land.
The lobefish developed fleshy pectoral and pelvic fins into legs and evolved into a half fish which crawled on land.

In the Canadian Arctic, in 2004, a fossil creature from the Devonian was unearthed which may have been one of the links between fish and half fish that walked on land. Called Tiktaalik, it had a crocodile-like head, ribs, a neck, and nostrils on its snout for breathing air, and strong, bony fins to use as legs in shallow water and on land.

The HNHS study, along with statistics of Penn Dixie attendance, is one of the first indicators that our treasure trove of Devonian fossils may mean a worldwide disbursement of local fossils in return for accumulation of local wealth.

Whether the present modest demand could ever threaten our seemingly inexhaustible supply of Devonian fossils is not something any known study has attempted to explore as yet.