On a sunny summer day in 2004, two employees of the New York State Museum took a scenic drive through the countryside. It was a perfect day for a field trip, but inside the car, an awkward tension hung between driver and passenger. "We were both thinking a lot of the same things," says Linda Hernick.
They were both thinking of Sharon Mannolini, Hernick's former coworker who had died the year before in a car accident while on vacation. Sharon was also sister to Frank Mannolini, who was now sitting next to Hernick on his first official day at the Museum, after volunteering there to continue his sister's work. "It was very different" from the last field trip with Sharon, Hernick says. "I was still very sad."
Formerly a carpenter and truck driver, Frank was a somewhat unlikely replacement for Sharon, who had been a geology student at the University of Albany and a volunteer at the Museum, where she worked for Hernick in the paleontology collections. Still, as children, Frank had encouraged Sharon's interest in rocks.
Two years earlier, Sharon found a tooth on a group trip to dig for arthropods. "The shovel went in, a fragment shot up, and Sharon caught it," says Hernick, in the same measured tones she uses to describe the loss of her friend. Sharon's found tooth triggered Hernick's first official project for the museum, which provided funding to find the rest of the animal. The results were disappointing, however. "We scoured that area and found nothing," says Hernick.
Now Hernick and Frank Mannolini were traveling back to the same site, the South Mountain quarry an hour southwest of Albany, to hunt for early land biota. When they arrived at the quarry, the two went their separate ways to hunt. For Hernick, reminders of Sharon were everywhere, including the place where she had found the ancient tooth. Hernick pointed out the spot to Frank.
Picking another location, Mannolini began chipping at an exposed spot of shale and uncovered part of a tree trunk. He kept digging and saw the trunk's striations morph into a speckled pattern, representing the points where leaf branches had snapped off, and indicating that he had found a buried treetop. Hernick began to help him, "because this was obviously something different."
The two uncovered a tree's entire crown. They poured water on it for visual contrast and took photos. A group of mushroom-hunting women came by and warned them that a lot of people were expected in the area for the 4th of July weekend. So Hernick and Mannolini covered their find until they could come back to cut out the fossil.
In the summer of 2005, Hernick and Mannolini found another trunk of the same species buried deeper in the layers of excavated rock at the quarry. They spent that year and the next uncovering a six-meter long fossil, which now resides at the Museum. The bottom of this second tree matched the Gilboa stumps - huge, bulbous-shaped fossils that resemble swollen elephants' feet, found in the 1870s near South Mountain. What the rest of the Gilboa trees looked like had remained a mystery, one Hernick knew well (a roadside display of the Gilboa stumps was her favorite destination as a child) but never expected to solve.
The Museum brought in two experts to identify the tree, deemed taller than any known Middle Devonian plant. In a recent issue of Nature, Hernick, Mannolini, and their colleagues christen the two Gilboa trees Wattieza, and at 385 million years of age, declare them to be the Earth's oldest.
"It's quite exciting," says Patricia Gensel, a University of North Carolina paleobotanist. The Gilboa tree dials back the clock on ancient landscapes, she adds. "It certainly changes our thinking about the pattern of evolution and the timing of major advancements - on a big level."
With a Nature paper to his credit, Mannolini is now studying biology at a local community college. He says he never did well in school, but now, "The digging keeps it interesting. There's still so much I don't know."
Thanks to the Nature paper, Hernick, who never received a PhD, now has more projects and funding. Getting published was fun, but nothing fuels her passion more than an old field with a gate across that says ?No Trespassing.' "I think, hmm, I wonder if there's a quarry back there."