Lost fossil ‘treasure’ rediscovered after 70 years

Researchers discovered fossils at the fossil site in 1951 before its location was initially lost. (Image credit: Ferraz et al)

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Scientists have finally rediscovered a lost fossil site in Brazil, after researchers who discovered it 70 years ago were unable to retrace their steps to this remote location. The long-lost site’s unique geological conditions preserve paleontological treasures that could help shed light on one of the greatest extinction events in Earth‘s story.

The rediscovered site, known as Cerro Chato, is located near the Brazil-Uruguay border in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. Around 260 million years ago, towards the end of the Permian period (299 million to 251 million years ago), conditions at the site were ideal for trapping and preserving dead organisms. As a result, Cerro Chato’s multiple rock layers are full of delicate fossils, especially plants, which generally don’t fossilize as well as animals because they lack hard parts.

Paleontologists who discovered Cerro Chato in 1951 were enthusiastic about its exceptionally well-preserved Permian remains. Unfortunately, without memorable landmarks or modern technologies, such as GPS, researchers were unable to accurately record the exact geographic coordinates of the site, and when they attempted to return to the Permian hoard, they couldn’t find it. After several attempts to retrace their steps, the team abandoned the search and declared the site lost. However, a new group of researchers picked up the torch and managed to find the lost location in 2019.

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“For decades, the geographic location of this outcrop was unknown,” which inspired the new research team to conduct a massive “treasure hunt” to find it, said Joseline Manfroi, a paleobotanist at the University of Vale. do Taquari in Rio Grande do Sul. , and co-author of a new study describing the rediscovered site. “Fortunately, after so long, we will have the opportunity to continue writing [the site’s] history, through the fossil record,” Manfroi said in a statement. (opens in a new tab).

To date, more than 100 fossils – mostly plants, as well as fish and molluscs – have been discovered at Cerro Chato by the original team and the co-authors of the new study. Some of the fossilized plants are ancestors of modern conifers and ferns, the researchers reported.

However, the new team suspects that these fossils are just the tip of the iceberg. When early researchers discovered the site, they could only scratch the surface of the fossil deposits of Cerro Chato before losing track of its location, and although it was rediscovered nearly three years ago, there is still a lot of ground to cover. “The area to be explored is immense,” said the study’s lead author, Joseane Salau Ferraz, a doctoral student at the Federal University of Pampa in Rio Grande do Sul, in the statement. “I estimate that we haven’t even explored 30% of all available space.”

Cerro Chato plant fossils could help researchers better understand drastic effects climate change which took place near the end of the Permian, which triggered an extinction event that wiped out approximately 90% of life on Earth. “The fossils we study are of global significance because they are direct evidence of the environmental changes that took place during the Permian period,” Ferraz said. “These studies will help us retrieve information about the distribution of these plants around the world.”

The team published their findings online May 15 in the journal of the Brazilian Society of Paleontology Paleodeste (opens in a new tab), and the study can be downloaded for free in English and Portuguese. “We chose to publish the article in Portuguese precisely to make the text available to local people,” Ferraz said. “They’re very excited about paleontology, which is cool to see.”

Originally posted on Live Science.