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Volume 16, Issue 9 - February 28 - March 5, 2008

Walking in Fossil Footprints

Calvert curator backtracks the age of Earth

Dinosaur models, fossil shells, skulls and sharks’ teeth bristle in the office of Stephen Godfrey, curator of paleontology at Calvert Marine Museum, where this Voyage of Discovery has landed us.

On Godfrey’s bookshelf, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species sits next to Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham and Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible. Godfrey’s juxtaposed volumes hint at his own life journey through religion, science and art.

The curator is boyish and disarmingly open about what he calls his “emotionally painful pilgrimage” through the short cycle of his own time. In childhood, he learned the creationist theory of a young Earth. Then, as a student quarrying for fossils, he came to understand the scientific evidence for a billions-of-years-old planet.

At 48, Godfrey is an architect of the museum’s new exhibit on Calvert Cliff’s fossils. The renovated display shows where the local Maryland trove of sharks’ teeth, saucer-sized scallops and dolphin skulls fits into the vast sweep of geologic time.

He’s also a sculptor of long-vanished species, including the creature models in his office, such as the pterosaur that appeared in the opening scene of X-Men. And he carved most of the brachiosaurus that stands outside Chicago’s Field Museum.

The 600 Creatures of Our Past

Our own Calvert Cliffs harbor some of the best Miocene Epoch fossils in the world. Much of the museum’s collection was discovered by attentive beach-walkers.

“After 100 years of collecting, you’d think we’d know everything about Calvert Cliffs’ fossils,” Godfrey tells us. “But we don’t. Four new kinds of dolphins [from the cliffs] are sitting in my office waiting to be named.”

Another treasure of the cliffs is the world’s largest crab fossil, a four-foot spider crab whose descendant lives in the modern Chesapeake.

“I’m most interested in what’s new, what hasn’t been described yet,” Godfrey says. “We’re filling the gaps with these pieces of the puzzle, which is the history of life.”

The 600 or so types of creatures now entombed in Calvert Cliffs lived from eight to 18 million years ago in an ancestral Atlantic Ocean. The size and depth of the ocean over Southern Maryland, in its latter years, was similar to Raritan Bay in today’s New Jersey. But the Miocene climate was more like the Carolinas’, the warmest between the age of dinosaurs and our times.

The Evolution of a Paleontologist

Godfrey grew up in Quebec, the son of parents blessed with remarkable tolerance of their son’s penchant for collecting dead animals and other oddities. When Godfrey was born, his grandfather inexplicably told Stephen’s mother, “We’ll make a scientist out of this one.”

“I like to look at and hold curious objects,” Godfrey says. “As a teenager I’d collect road kill, boil the bones, and rearticulate the skeleton.” His parents kept a black plastic bag in the back of their Volkswagen van for his finds. Once he “unwittingly” appropriated his grandmother’s toothbrush to scrub a dog skeleton. His bedroom became his personal natural history museum.

But Godfrey’s family were religious fundamentalists who had no faith in evolution. His church taught that the earth was between 6,000 and 10,000 years old. He believed that the only way to know the age of the Earth was to count the generations in the Bible.

“That’s why I went into paleontology, to resolve this conflict myself firsthand,” he says.

In the 1980s, he studied fossil animal footprints in rocks in Kansas. That’s when he began to doubt that all fossils were left behind from Noah’s flood. How could the footprints of animals supposedly killed in the flood be preserved in so many different layers of rock?

“Footprint fossils spoke to me personally as silent witnesses to the great antiquity of this planet,” he wrote in a book, Paradigms on Pilgrimage. “I was forced, by the fossils I was finding, to abandon a worldview that I held to dearly.” The creationists’ view of Earth’s origin became for Godfrey “the antithesis of science, an admission of ignorance, because they offer no natural mechanisms that science could test objectively.”

Godfrey considers Paradigms on Pilgrimage — in which he discusses his struggle between traditional religious beliefs and scientific training — his most significant professional achievement. He co-wrote it with his brother-in-law, who has a doctorate in religion, to help others from similar backgrounds who confront “so much anguish and turmoil.”

Fossils Lead the Way

In the museum, Godfrey leads us beneath the gaping maw of an extinct giant white shark, a megaladon — giant tooth — suspended from the ceiling.

A toddler of about two years tugs a woman visitor into the exhibit hall. “I want to go!” howls the boy, spotting the open jaws.

“We see that all the time,” Godfrey says. His goal — and the museum’s — is for the fossils to lead people into Earth’s distant past.

“If you can impress kids,” he says, “it’ll keep their attention long enough to learn something.”

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