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July 1, 2008

News Article: Roanoke Time

July 01, 2008

By Jay Conley

BLUE RIDGE -- It looks like a turtle shell, or a mushroom top, or maybe even the remnants of a flying saucer. And it's coming soon to the Virginia Museum of Natural History: A rare fossil nobody expected to find in Botetourt County.

Alton Dooley was working in Wyoming in early June, looking for dinosaur remains, when the paleontologist got a call that there was something interesting to check out back home in Virginia.

But Dooley, who works at the Martinsville-based museum, wasn't too excited about looking at another stromatolite. Pieces of the mound-shaped rock formations, remnants of algae life dating back millions of years, are commonly found all over the world. So Dooley was pleasantly surprised by what has turned out to be a most uncommon find that was unearthed recently at the Boxley Blue Ridge Quarry off U.S. 460: a completely intact 2-ton, 5-foot-in-circumference stromatolite.

"I've never actually seen a stromatolite preserved this way before, and I've worked on a bunch of them," Dooley said Monday as the smooth, rounded object was unveiled to the media at the quarry.

In 20 years of examining such fossils, "it's the first one I've ever seen where the top is preserved," he said.

The fossil, which has been donated to the museum by the quarry, dates back 500 million years. It far surpasses the age of artifacts in the natural history museum's current exhibit of Virginia life forms, which go back 350 million years.

Stromatolites are considered by some scientists to be the oldest life forms on Earth. Some found in western Australia in 1999 are thought to have been created by microbes 3.4 billion years ago. The mounds are formed in shallow ocean water by algae that trap mud and sand particles.

The fossil at the quarry was found by a worker in a pile of boulders after they were blasted from a quarry wall.

"This one, we got lucky," said Jeff Perkins, executive vice president at Boxley Materials Co. "When we were down in our pile of stone doing what we do for a living, our loader operator stopped and moved it off to the side and called our geologist."

Perkins said stromatolite remnants have been found in the quarry since it opened in 1917.

"What's rare about this one is how big it is," he said. "At first we thought maybe it was a turtle shell."

The big rock should be on display at the museum's Martinsville headquarters in about 45 days after a special base is designed for the heavy object, said Tim Gette, the museum's executive director.

"It's a very significant find for us and a major addition to our exhibit," he said.

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