If there’s one thing that transforms the aspiring scientist in me into a giddy, awkward nerd-child, it’s a fossiliferous rock formation, and there are few better than the Kope Formation of Northern Kentucky. Arguably my favorite fossil-bearing roadcut is where the Kope Formation is exposed on Clyde T Barbour Pkwy in Maysville, KY, right on the OH-KY border. The area in general (Southern OH and Northern KY) is very gifted geologically. Not for any petrologic reason (shale and limestone don’t get many people excited) but because it’s a fossil motherload. The interbedded limestone and shale host a whole suite of echinoderms, multiple genera of brachiopods, and other titillating invertebrates.
This spot is perfect for beginners and experts alike, and decades of field trips and fossil hunting haven’t even put a dent in the plethora of fossils. The roadcut is close to a mile long on either side of the road and is close to 100 feet at its tallest point. Safety isn’t much of a concern either unless you decide to climb the outcrop. There’s plenty of room to stay away from the road and I am not aware of any major rock slides occurring on the slopes.
I was lucky enough to enter the Geier Collections and Research Center in Cincinnati to explore their vast fossil collection with a tour hosted by Brenda Hunda, whom I recognized from the documentary Prehistoric: Predators of the Past. They had everything I’ve ever dreamed of, from an actual fossilized diplodicid skeleton to eurypterids to edrioasteroid holotypes. One favorite was a large slab of limestone completely covered in immaculately preserved crinoids found from the Maysville roadcut. Viewing other amazing fossils from the same location propelled me to get out there and see what I could rustle up.
So far, I’ve visited the Trammel Fossil Park in Sharonville, OH, some roadcuts in Owingsville, KY, and of course the Maysville roadcut, all of which host Ordovician strata. Near Owingsville, I also visited an outcrop that exhibits the Devonian/Silurian contact where I found silicified rugose corals and echinoderms. Another notable stop is a roadcut on I-64, East of Owingsville in Morehead, KY that hosts Mississipian blastoids as well as beautiful red chert nodules and a bed of glauconite.
But back to our friend Kope. The strata are Upper Ordovician in age, but as far as I know an absolute age hasn’t been determined. The most striking feature is the shear size of the outcrop. But what’s even more interesting is the change in fauna you encounter as you vertically traverse the unit. Some portions consist almost entirely of strophomenid brachiopods and bryozoans. Other portions host huge concentrations of crinoid columnals, trilobite segments, and cephalopods. At the highest points in the outcrop, you encounter the large Platystrophia and edrioasteroids. Thus far, fossils I’ve encountered in Maysville include several species of brachiopods, bryozoans, crinoids, and trilobites. I’ve also seen asteroids, edrioasteroids, nautiloids, graptolites, gastropods, and bivalves. Probably the best fossil I’ve seen on site is a large nautiloid phragmocone with an intact siphuncle, which I have to give my buddy Sean credit for finding. And if you’re a mineral fan, calcite vugs in brachiopod valves are abundant in the limestone.
While not a universally held view, I consider the Kope to be a Lagerstätte, which is German for “storage space.” This is essentially a collection of fossils that are either extremely well preserved (such as soft tissue preservation) or are found in high abundance and diversity, the Kope being the latter of the two types. This is one of the most worthwhile spots I’ve visited, even though it’s about four hours from Knoxville. I recommend it to anyone and everyone who asks me about rockhounding. There is also plenty of parking space and you can drive almost right up to the outcrop.
I’m hoping to make a trip by the end of April to a spot I’ve been waiting until warm weather to visit, so be ready for another post coming very soon. I’ll give you a hint, it involves large, slimy, paedomorphic amphibians (okay, that might be more than a hint).
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