McKenzie excavates fossil of Dunkleosteus


Long before there was Lake Erie and its abundant supply of walleye, trout and perch, a huge prehistoric fish with thick armor plating and a bite rivaling that of Tyrannosaurus Rex inhabited the region.

For 25 years, Mercyhurst University geologist Scott McKenzie has hunted the remains of this formidable creature that made its home in the salt water ocean that covered Erie County some 364 million years ago. The Dunkleosteus was a large placoderm of the Devonian period and widely considered the top predator of its time. It had the most powerful bite of any fish, well ahead of sharks, including the Great White.

“Every spring, some of my friends and I visit different sites in the region, mainly stream beds, and we look for any signs of bones exposed during the winter,” McKenzie said. “We’ve found fossil evidence of about 20 of these fish – usually just a bony plate or a jaw piece, but they are here.”

Cleveland, Ohio, he said, is a hotbed for Dunkleosteus finds, but they are far less common in this region. Still, McKenzie and his colleagues have recovered Dunkleosteus fossils in Union, Waterford, Elk and LeBoeuf townships as well as Harborcreek, North East and Lawrence Park.

Since 1998, though, he has been quietly excavating a substantial Dunkleosteus fossil on private land. He won’t reveal its whereabouts out of courtesy to the property owner who has allowed him to excavate and because of his concern for protecting the exposed fossil.

“So far we have 25 percent of the skull and we think we will get enough to someday be able to mount it,” he said. That would be an amazing opportunity for McKenzie, who curates the popular Sincak Natural History Museum at Mercyhurst University.

McKenzie said recovering fossils such as these enables people to understand the past and appreciate the history of animal and plant life.

“To understand that this region was once an ocean makes you appreciate the passage of time and lets you know that things are going to change in the future,” he said. “In time maybe the lake will disappear. Perhaps the area will become a desert or a jungle.  Anything is possible.”




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