Ancient coral discovered by local man impresses expert

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Cliff Keeling was cleaning a hollow in the base of an old maple tree behind his farm when he noticed an unusual stone in the tree’s roots.

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The 84-year-old doctor dug it up in late summer and found a fossil the size of a 440-million-year-old cantaloupe, at a time when much of North America was under a shallow tropical sea.

The rock filled both his hands as he held it. From a certain angle it looked like a plaster cast of a large, swollen glove, bone white and yellowish. The parts have a saffron blush and everything is riddled with small dark holes. He weighs a few kilos.

It is a museum-quality specimen that describes underwater processes involving corals, sponges and other organisms, said a coral expert.

Keeling lives south of Owen Sound and just north of Rockford, on a wooded elevation off Highway 6/10. The Bruce Trail, the winding 885 kilometer trail that follows the length of the Niagara Limestone Escarpment, traverses its lands.

Keeling said he was cleaning around the base of a century-old tree to keep it healthy when he discovered the muddy fossil. “It was in the roots of the tree.”

“I brought it into the house and put it in a bucket of water overnight and in the morning I just couldn’t believe I had found such a thing.”

He suspects the fossil was deposited there by a receding glacier. He showed it to Ron Savage, another member of the Sydenham Bruce Trail Club, who called the fossil “breathtaking”. He himself is an amateur collector of fossils.

“I have a ton of fossils myself and have been collecting them for years and years. But he just took my breath away with what he found. It’s just spectacular, ”said Savage.

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He first sent photos of the fossil to a friend who studied geology, who sent them to someone at the Royal Ontario Museum. From there, they were forwarded to an expert at the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg.

Cliff Keeling, shown on Monday December 13, 2021, unearthed the fossil he holds among the roots in the hollow of this old maple tree, behind his farm in Rockford, Ont.  (Scott Dunn / The Sun Times / Postmedia Network)
Cliff Keeling, shown on Monday December 13, 2021, unearthed the fossil he holds among the roots in the hollow of this old maple tree, behind his farm in Rockford, Ont. (Scott Dunn / The Sun Times / Postmedia Network)

Graham Young, geologist and curator of geology and paleontology at the Manitoba Museum, called the fossil “definitely unusual and beautiful,” in an email to Savage. It could be a good subject for scientific study or public display, he wrote.

The fossil likely represents a series of organisms that each in turn grew on the skeleton of its predecessor, he wrote.

In a phone interview, he compared it to what you would find off the coast of Florida, where reef patches form where coral, sponges and algae grow on top of each other and collect on the seabed.

“There was first a branched coral and a kind of honeycomb coral but growing in branches, like some staghorn or moosehorn corals,” he said. “Then there is evidence that this sponge grows on this coral in places. “

When the organisms were alive, most of North America was submerged under a shallow tropical sea 440 million years ago, he said. Keeling is probably correct that a passing glacier dropped him off where he found him, Young said. Hundreds of years could have passed after the death of one coral before the next one grew on it.

Another coral then pushed through the branches and filled in the spaces between them, he said. “It’s like having one tree and a mushroom growing out of all three. . . or lichen all over them, ”he said. “But if you look, you’ll see the tree below. “

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There may also be piercings made by other animals, he suspects.

Young is a paleontologist specializing in ancient corals of the type Keeling found. The corals that make up the fossil are not unique to this region, to its knowledge. But they tell a story.

“It shows that assemblage and it tells you something about the way the animals behaved, or how they chose where to live. And it’s a very beautiful piece, ”he said.

“I reviewed all of the Paleozoic corals that were going into the new ROM gallery. And a work like this is as good as any that were selected for this ROM gallery.

It would be a good place for it to end, if Keeling wanted to donate it to the ROM, Young suggested in an email. Keeling said he was considering loaning the fossil to Young.

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