A Utah fossil’s journey to Harvard


The 500-million-year-old fossil doesn’t stick out in Carrie Levitt-Bussian’s memory. Why would it?

Carrie Levitt-Bussian ^.Banner photo above: Artistic reconstruction of Megasiphon thylakos and comparisons with modern tunicates. Courtesy of Natural History Museum of Utah.

It looks like an unassuming, light gray, palm-sized rock with a thick “Y” on it.

That “Y” is, in fact, an animal — the ancestor of a modern sea squirt. It’s much older than any such relative previously found in the fossil record, and also much better preserved. If you’re into the grand story of evolution and, say, insights into the earliest days of vertebrates, this is remarkable enough to warrant a nine-page writeup by a team from Harvard University in Nature Communications. We’ll get to that.

But Levitt-Bussian, MS'13 in geology, has handled thousands of fossils — from ancient footprints to prehistoric poop to spectacular dinosaur skulls; her favorites are the ceratopsians, like triceratops. And what sticks out about this fossil has more to do with how it arrived in her custody, and how it left.

As the paleontology collections manager for the Natural History Museum of Utah, “I am a librarian, but for fossils,” she said. Boxes of rocks come and go all the time. Usually, though, the new arrivals don’t look like they were seized as evidence of a crime.

“There was Customs tape — red, scary tape all over the boxes,” she recalled. (“EVIDENCE,” some of the tape sternly warned: “DO NOT OPEN.”)

Here’s the backstory: Federal law enforcers had seized a large collection of fossils from the Cambrian period, roughly twice as old as the oldest dinosaur. These weren’t common trilobites like the casual, law-abiding collector might pay a few bucks to take home from a roadside quarry. They were amazing finds, many from federal land. The people who illegally took them had some knowledge of what to look for and hoped to sell them in Canada.

So for a long while, these ill-gotten Cambrian fossils were part of a case involving the Bureau of Land Management. Then came the question of where they should end up.


Read the full story by Daniel Potter at NHMU's website/blog.