Fossil finds behind N.J. strip mall causing excitement

MANTUA TOWNSHIP, N.J. -- A dig site, in New Jersey, is yielding exciting finds: the fossils of animals believed killed around the same time the dinosaurs disappeared. Uncovering the mystery has taken a cast of thousands.

Behind a strip mall in southern New Jersey, paleontologists from Drexel University are traveling 65 million years into the past. This quarry could be the most significant fossil site in decades.

"We know all these animals died at the same time because their bones are still put together," said Ken Lacovara, the professor leading the dig team.

Lacovara thinks those may be the fossils of thousands of animals that all died around the time a meteor struck and killed off 70 percent of life on earth.

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A New Jersey quarry could be the most significant fossil site in decades
CBS News

If it turns out to be the case, the only window the world has to animals actually killed in that cataclysm, that wipes out the dinosaurs, and essentially makes the modern world as we know it, is in a pit behind a shopping mall in New Jersey.

Last summer, Lacovara made big news when he announced another discovery -- the largest dinosaur in the world.

The dreadnaughtus was bigger than a Boeing 746 and weight 65 tons. Lacovara found it in the wilds of Patagonia in Argentina.

In the New Jersey quarry, the Drexel team has uncovered some amazing fossils over the past 12 years, including a predator the size of a bus, and a 7-foot-long thoracosaurus crocodile that once lived along the coast here.

But this site is special for another reason. For three years now, Lacovara has invited the public to come help dig for a day; 1,300 people have shown up to help.

The people are fascinated, looking almost like they are going to find what's under the Christmas tree.

"Can you imagine when you're a kid, when you find your first fossil?" said Lacovara. :That's a transformational experience, it connects them for the first time in a tangible to the Earth's ancient past. I think for many of these kids they are never going to forget that moment.

The hope is these kids find more than fossils. Lacovara wants them to discover a love for science.

"I am going to be a paleontologist when I grow up," said Jordan Lane, who came with her mother and brother. "Because they're so cool."

Even with all the help, the team has literally just scratched the surface of what the quarry might reveal.

"If we were to excavate here five days a week we could process an acre in 10 years and this property is 65 acres, so we have about 650 years of work left to do," said Lacovara. "Geologically, that's no time at all."

Which means there will be plenty of work awaiting all these future paleontologists.