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February 9, 2008

Meridian's Red Hot fossil spot

When construction began on the North Frontage Road Super Wal-Mart back in 2000, contractors and developers weren't the only ones paying attention. Paleontologists who had been interested in the site since the late 1980s took advantage of the construction, unearthing some interesting and significant fossils in what is known in the world of paleontology as the Red Hot Truck Stop locality, so named for the eatery that was torn down to make way for the Wal-Mart.

Fossils can be found in more places than one might think, according to Southern Methodist University graduate student Daniel Danehy, who recently published a paper on the Red Hot locality in the online journal Palaeontologia Electronica. But what makes the fossils unearthed at the Red Hot significant is the ability to accurately date them.

The leaf layer of fossils that interests scientists is located in between two other layers of fossils for which the dates are well-known. Since the leaf layer is in between the other two layers physically, it stands to reason that it's also in between the others on the timeline. Danehy said the fossils are from the early Eocene period — around 54 million years ago. During this time there was a short (geologically speaking), intense period of global warming for about 10,000 years. It's this period of global warming that makes the fossil featured in Danehy's paper significant.

The fossil is one of a leaf, the Rhabdophyllites diapryros. While the latter part of the name looks kind of like 'diaper,' it actually means 'fiery-hot' — a name given to denote the Red Hot, and it is known as the Red Hot leaf flora. What makes this fossil interesting is what it can tell us about the time period in which the plant was alive. The fossil is of a tropical plant, which, Danehy says, suggests that the Gulf Coast was a tropical eco-system at that time.

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