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Fossil nerds excited about 52-million-year-old salamander discovered near Kemmerer

When Dean Sherman got the photos of a new specimen found in one of the famous fossil quarries near Kemmerer, Wyoming, he immediately dropped his work and rushed to the site.

“I knew exactly what it was as soon as I got the picture,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s a salamander. That must be a salamander. ”

Sherman, the owner of In Stone Fossils, has found thousands of incredible fossils from the Green River Formation. But the foot-long salamander he saw in that photo is a new milestone on a personal, professional and paleontological level.

“In over 20 years of digging experience, I have never discovered anything like this,” he said. “It’s definitely a unique piece.”

Special Soft Salamander

Although the Green River Formation is one of the most fossiliferous rock formations in the world, the National Park Service says amphibian fossils are “extremely unusual.” In Stone Fossils employee Dave Dilworth found the fossil while excavating a new layer in an existing quarry that had already produced several incredible Green River discoveries.

Sherman identified the specimen as a Paleoamphiuma, an omnivorous salamander that lived about 52 million years ago. It is only the third example of the prehistoric amphibian ever found.

“We know for sure that we have the skull, at least two appendages on the front, and on the back two appendages that must be superimposed on one side of the specimen,” he said. “The only thing missing is a little piece of the tail.”

What is especially exciting is that there are telltale signs of soft tissue preservation. Sherman could tell by the ‘halo’ around the specimen.

“The halo around the fossil is a visual cue that there is skin around the specimen itself,” he said. “That would be the first Paleoamphiuma ever found with soft tissue preservation.”

No place like home

The scientific implications of the salamander are exciting enough, but that’s not all that’s exciting about the fossil’s future. This important fossil from the Cowboy State now and forever resides in Wyoming.

Sherman explained that the quarry where the salamander was found is on a parcel of land that In Stone Fossils leases from the state of Wyoming. That means the fossil belongs to and will ultimately reside in Wyoming.

“When a rare fossil is discovered in a state quarry, it goes to the State of Wyoming’s repository,” he said. “When it’s done, it can be put on display at the Wyoming State Museum or somewhere else, but it’s in public preservation. The state of Wyoming will own it.”

Fossils from the deposits of the Green River Formation in Wyoming are crown jewels in museums around the world. A first-of-its-kind mousebird, found by In Stone Fossils in a private quarry in Kemmerer, was recently donated to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

The newly discovered salamander may temporarily leave the state for research and display at other institutions, but it will never be gone forever. The Wyoming salamander will always come home.

The recently discovered specimen of a 52-million-year-old salamander from the Green River Formation near Kemmerer.  The dark "halo" surrounding the fossil is indicative of soft tissue preservation, not unusual in the formation, but a first of its kind for this rare amphibian.
The recently discovered specimen of a 52-million-year-old salamander from the Green River Formation near Kemmerer. The dark “halo” surrounding the fossil is indicative of soft tissue preservation, not unusual in the formation, but a first of its kind for this rare amphibian. (Courtesy of stone fossils)

Hours and years ahead

The salamander was completely excavated the same day it was found. It is owned by In Stone Fossils and will remain there for the foreseeable future.

Although the rare fossil belongs to the residents of Wyoming, they won’t be able to see it for a long time. Hundreds of hours and many years pass between the fossil’s discovery and its public debut.

“It’s in limbo right now,” he said. “It will be distributed to the state of Wyoming soon, but I have seen things ending up in a cabinet for a long time.”

The state will have to find money to prepare the fossil, a painstaking process that requires removing the rock without damaging the fragile bones. Sherman estimated that it would take hundreds of hours of preparation to fully reveal the salamander.

“You’re looking at probably over 200 hours of preparation on the specimen alone, and that could easily be exceeded,” he said. “I don’t know what funding Wyoming has for a project like this.”

When financing is available, a bidding process will be opened for the preparation of the fossil. This may be when the fossil makes a temporary trip abroad to be processed by a professional preparator.

Sherman has won bids to prepare several fossils for the state of Wyoming, but he will likely pass up preparing the salamander. He is still in the middle of a much bigger project: preparing a gigantic and impeccably preserved crocodile.

“The crocodile is our priority,” he said. “With the projects ahead of us, I don’t believe I would want to bid on this particular project.”

Sherman isn’t sure how long it will be before Wyomingites see the full grandeur of their salamander. Either way, they’ll have to be patient.

“I’ve seen things sitting in a closet for years before funds were available to prepare and display them,” he said. “It’s all financing.”

Left: the thin boulders containing the almost complete skeleton of the foot-long salamander found near Kemmerer.  It will take hundreds of hours of preparation before the fossil is ready for display in a museum in Wyoming.  Right: The partially exposed skull of the salamander.  This fossil has been tentatively identified as a Paleoamphiuma, making it only the third example of the extinct omnivorous salamander ever found in the Green River Formation.
Left: the thin boulders containing the almost complete skeleton of the foot-long salamander found near Kemmerer. It will take hundreds of hours of preparation before the fossil is ready for display in a museum in Wyoming. Right: The partially exposed skull of the salamander. This fossil has been tentatively identified as a Paleoamphiuma, making it only the third example of the extinct omnivorous salamander ever found in the Green River Formation. (Courtesy of stone fossils)

A fossil future

The remarkable fossil salamander is the first fossil found in a previously untouched layer in the Kemmerer Quarry. It’s an early indication that the layer has much more to offer than previously thought, and that more 52-million-year-old secrets are emerging from the rock.

“We just discovered today a bulb-like plant attached to a flower,” he said. ‘We’re working with a paleobotanist from the Field Museum, who will be here in less than a month, and some of this information is very important to his research. This type of plant material from the Green River Formation has not yet been well studied.”

Better yet: all fossils in the layer are subject to state law. Whatever Sherman and his team find, it will be Wyoming’s.

“The quarry has been active for a while, but no one has dug this layer,” he said. “A lot of people didn’t know there was so much material in there, but we’re already discovering some pretty interesting things.”

Still, it will be difficult to top the discovery of the third soft-tissue salamander of its kind.

“We are very proud that it is publicly preserved in Wyoming,” Sherman said. “It will be there for future scientists to study.”

Andreas Rossi can be reached at [email protected].

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