Mercyhurst University

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Not your average fish tale ...

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Cole Nypaver surveys NY quarry with property owner.

For 25 years, Mercyhurst University geologist Scott McKenzie has patiently pieced together fossil evidence of what is arguably the most terrifying creature of the Devonian Period – Dunkleosteus – a powerful prehistoric fish with thick armor plating and a bite rivaling that of T-Rex.

McKenzie’s personal passion – to gather enough of the creature’s remains embedded in the region’s sandy shale to reconstruct its skull and shoulder armor – has captured the attention of the world; in particular, the Japanese.

Japan’s NHK World, which operates international television, radio and internet services, is filming a documentary on evolution, focusing on changes in life forms throughout time and highlighting several charismatic organisms, including Dunkleosteus.

The Japanese media group is featuring the fierce predator that lived here 364 million years ago when present-day Erie was covered by a saltwater ocean while also highlighting a giant sea scorpion –Eurypterid –  that once inhabited parts of neighboring New York State, said McKenzie, curator of the Sincak Natural History Collection at Mercyhurst.

“The Japanese company contacted me after an article about my work with Dunkleosteus appeared in the Erie Times-News; the story was actually picked up all over the world, from London to Tokyo,” McKenzie said.

Since the story broke in spring 2013, McKenzie has had discussions with the filmmakers on several occasions. When they were scouting the Pennsylvania-New York area last November as part of their research, McKenzie stepped up as tour guide.

“It turned out to be a very fortunate happenstance because they seemed to like our Mercyhurst hospitality and, as a consequence, they chose to work with me and four of our students, which is turning out to be the experience of a lifetime for them,” he said. “How many university science students get to appear in an international science documentary?”

Just last week, the film crew shot video of McKenzie and students – Emily Repasi, Ian Scoles, Cole Nypaver and 2014 graduate Patrick Nolan – at a quarry in eastern New York where McKenzie shared his knowledge of the extinct sea scorpion and its former habitat.

“I had been at the quarry before doing research on different fossils, but I had no idea how much work was involved in shooting a documentary,” said Emily Repasi, a senior geology major from Pittsburgh. “It was a really cool experience and will be a good addition to my resume.”

For aspiring paleontologist Cole Nypaver, a sophomore geology major from Pittsburgh, it was the experience of a lifetime. “Not only was it amazing for someone like me with a love of fossils to explore the quarry, but I had no idea that the film production would be at the scale it was – there were cameras all around and drones flying over us.”

On Aug. 1, the Japanese crew is slated to tape a segment with McKenzie at Cleveland’s Museum of Natural History, where he will be interviewed about Dunkleosteus. The Cleveland museum is home to what is largely regarded as the most significant specimen of the giant predator.

After the taping, NHK World will have finished its work in this area and move on to other sites, among them South Africa, Australia, Poland and the Canadian Rockies. The plan is to translate the documentary into French and English and distribute to other television markets, including the U.S., with a tentative release of later next year, according to McKenzie.

"This should be a pretty spectacular program; the computer animations are better than Jurassic Park,” he said. “At one point, they had our students walking around the quarry as animated sea scorpions emerged from the rocks all around them.”

Beyond the artistic liberties, though, McKenzie stressed that studying fossils such as these enables people to understand the past and appreciate the history of animal and plant life.

In terms of Erie, in particular, he said, “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. In time maybe the lake will disappear. Perhaps the area will become a desert or a jungle.  Anything is possible.”