- Associated Press - Monday, April 21, 2014

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) - Rather than searching for prehistoric treasures, paleontologist Vince Santucci is on the hunt for another rarity - lost history.

The search is centered about 15 miles west of Hot Springs at a site known as Fossil Cycad National Monument, which once held one of the world’s greatest collections of cycads, or fossilized plants.

A Hot Springs man discovered the site in the late 19th century and President Warren Harding put it under the protection of the National Park Service in 1922.

But years of excavations and looting would take its toll, and in 1957 it lost that designation. Today, the 320-acre site is administered by the Bureau of Land Management and because fossilized cycads may still be there, the public is prohibited from removing anything from the site.

The site is now undergoing renewed scientific scrutiny as part of the 2014 Conference on Fossil Resources, which is being hosted by the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. The three-day conference that starts on May 13 will bring paleontologists from around the nation to the Black Hills and include a field trip to the Fossil Cycad National Monument.

Santucci, a senior geologist and paleontologist with the National Park Service, has wanted to put as much of its story back together as he can.

He has a few pictures of an unidentified family living on what he believes is the Payne and Arnold ranch in 1893, land that would later become part of the fossil site. As part of his research, Santucci is looking for members of the public who can help identify them or uncover more information about the site.

“We keep finding new and interesting pieces of the story,” he said. “We could only imagine that there are people who have photographs and that’s something that we really don’t have a lot of.”

As part of a paleontology conference here in May, Santucci will lead the field trip to the site, which has a bit of a turbulent history.

From the time it was discovered, it was clear cycads were being taken from the site, he said. As a result, Yale University paleobotanist George Wieland arranged to excavate over a ton of cycads and transport them back to his university in 1935.

By the 1940s, it was difficult to find visible fossils at the site.

Today, the cycads can be found at Yale, the Smithsonian Natural History Museum and the South Dakota School of Mines’ Geology Museum.

Far from your average houseplant, the trunks of plants living at the time of the dinosaurs resemble a fossilized beehive.

“They sort of look like a pineapple,” Santucci said.

And Santucci said their removal was a lost opportunity both for scientists and the public to view them in their natural environment.

“It’s wonderful to go to a museum and look at the display,” he said. “But there’s also equal value in getting to see the fossils in the ground and in place. It’s a whole different experience.”

Whether more fossils are eventually found there is an open question. Construction crews digging for a Highway 18 expansion through the area in 1980 found cycads. Many were later sent to the School of Mines for study.

Black Hills Institute head Pete Larson said he would be thrilled at the possibility of finding new specimens there and would consider volunteering his services if there was a serious dig, though there are no plans for one during the conference.

If cycads could be discovered much deeper in the ground, that could potentially help scientists learn more about how such a large and distinctive collection cropped up there in the first place, Larson said.


Information from: Rapid City Journal, https://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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