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A 500-million-year-old fossil was recently found by a Vermont fly fishing guide

A photo of a person in a striped shirt holding a large rock with the imprint of a trilobite, which looks like a mushroom cap on top of a spine with many tendrils branching to the left and right.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
Vermont Public
Emily Murphy holds the olenellid trilobite she found. The fossil is more than 500 million years old.

When Emily Murphy takes you fly fishing, she’s aware of everything that’s going on around her.

She’s watching how the river flows, and what kind of flies are buzzing around and settling on the water. She’s noticing the fallen trees, stone foundations and how the tumble of rocks and boulders build the landscape along the water’s edge.

“I’m always kind of scanning my environment,” Murphy said during a recent visit to a creek near Brattleboro, where she lives. “And fly fishing is all about observing. You’re kind of... I like to call it the movement within the stillness, you’re participating. And so there’s a lot of presence involved in that.”

Murphy is a professional fly fishing guide. She says after she’s introduced a client to the water, and helped them throw in a few lines, she likes to sit back and be quiet, appreciate her surroundings and let the aspiring angler settle into the rhythm of fly fishing.

And that’s exactly what she was doing one warm afternoon in late August, when she glanced down at a large boulder that was sitting right at her side.

“We were fishing for brook trout, and at first when I saw it, I thought it was like a mud print of somebody’s boot. And then I realized that it was a fossil,” Murphy said.

"Fly fishing is all about observing. You’re kind of... I like to call it the movement within the stillness, you’re participating. And so there’s a lot of presence involved in that.”
Emily Murphy, fly fishing guide

And it wasn’t just any fossil that Murphy discovered along that creek in Bennington County. Murphy found an olenellid trilobite, and it’s probably more than 500 million years old.

Charlotte Mehrtens, a professor emerita in the University of Vermont geology department, has seen a photo of the fossil. She says it's among the oldest fossils ever found in the state.

"This one had like, neon flashing lights of, 'I'm an olenellus.' And probably any decent paleontologist would be able to pick that one out in a second,” Mehrtens said.

Similar fossils have been found up near Lake Champlain, but they are typically in softer rocks.

And Mehrtens, who's been studying geology for more than four decades, says she's never seen a trilobite fossil from Vermont in the hard sandstone that Murphy discovered.

"To think about all the things that a living organism has to go through to be fossilized, that's mind-blowing,” Mehrtens said. “So to find a fossil is rare, because fossils are rare. And to find them in really old rocks is rare, because as rare as fossils are, they're rarer in older rocks, triple rare. So, yeah, it's just some mind-blowing stuff.”

A woman wearing a knit hat and round pink sunglasses holds out a fishing rod with a downed log and rocks and moss in the background.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
Vermont Public
Emily Murphy drops a line in Stickney Brook in Dummerston.

Department of Environmental Conservation state geologist Ben DeJong agreed.

“You know, we don’t have a ton of fossils in Vermont, and, it is an absolutely cool find," DeJong said.

Murphy has not disclosed where she found the fossil, and DeJong said the laws around collecting rocks vary depending on whether you're looking on private land, state-owned parcels, like highways and parks, or in the national forest.

But if he found a 500 million-year-old specimen, he's pretty sure he knows what he would do.

“If I found it, and I was stumbling in the woods, and I stepped on this thing, I would just absolutely have to take it out of the woods,” DeJong said. “And whether it's sharing it back to the state, or if I had the permissions to keep it, I would cross that bridge later.”

"So to find a fossil is rare, because fossils are rare. And to find them in really old rocks is rare, because as rare as fossils are, they're rarer in older rocks, triple rare. So, yeah, it's just some mind blowing stuff.” - Charlotte Mehrtens, UVM professor emerita<br/>

Murphy’s not saying right now exactly where she found it. But she thinks it was legal to remove the fossil from what she says was public water, near where thousands of other people have gone fly fishing.

The fossil shows the imprint of a sea creature that crawled around the sandy floor of a shallow ocean that covered Vermont, all of those hundreds of millions of years ago.

It’s in a large heavy rock, about the size of a case of beer, and the complete trilobite is visible.

It’s impossible to know where the rock has been hiding for the past 500 million years. Murphy says it was right along the water's edge, and perhaps the very dry summer we had this year exposed it.

More from Vermont Public: A Whale In Vermont? The Story Behind The State's Most Famous Fossil

“It just goes to show how much is around us, and how much we have to learn,” Murphy says. “And it’s a great lesson in just continuing to be present and observant, and a part of your surroundings, and not try to just steamroll our way through. So I think it’s a great lesson in just being observant.”

She doesn't know what her next step will be. She says she’ll probably hire an environmental attorney to help her sort it the ownership question.

Murphy has contacted the state, and UVM, and she says she wants the fossil to be available to the public.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public's reporter for Southern Vermont & the Connecticut River Valley. He worked at the Brattleboro Reformer for 11 years, reporting on most towns in the region and specializing on statewide issues including education, agriculture, energy and mental health. Howard received a BA in Journalism from University of Massachusetts. He filed his first story with Vermont Public in September 2015.
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