Rare Fossilized Sea Star Turns Up On Beach at Olympic National Park

A fossilized sea star, barely visible in an orange-colored X pattern, was recently discovered on an Olympic National Park beach. NPS photo.

Anyone who regularly frequents beaches no doubt is familiar with sea stars (colloquially known as starfish), but it's not often one runs into one that could be 24 million years old and is encased in rock.

But that's what an unidentified visitor to Olympic National Park's beach No. 4 near Kalaloch encountered when he (or she) spotted the fossilized sea star embedded in a sandstone bluff early in July.

“It’s very unusual,” said Gay Hunter, the park’s museum curator. “Once it’s studied we’ll know a lot more.”

The visitor used a cell phone to take a picture of the fossil, and showed it to Interpreter Pat Shields, who in turn alerted other park staff. Curators at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science were then contacted for advice. They advised that the fossil be excavated from its site for safe long-term storage and study. In the words of one paleontologist, “This is indeed fabulous and beautiful and so amazingly unusual.”

The sea star was removed from the beach on July 16. On the advice of museum experts, park staff used a diamond-bladed rock saw to cut it from the rock, a six-hour process that was gingerly undertaken to protect the fragile fossil. The project piqued the interest of numerous passersby, and an interpreter was part of the team to help explain the process to Kalaloch visitors.

“It was a little unnerving,” said Olympic National Park Coastal Ecologist Steve Fradkin, who headed the excavation project. “I’ve never actually used a rock saw to remove a fossil before.”

Initial analysis of the sea star put it at somewhere between 5 and 24 million years old. While the taxonomy is not apparent, the turbidite formation it was found in suggests it was a denizen of the deep seas. It was likely preserved in sediment by an underwater avalanche and, like the peninsula’s numerous other marine sediments, was later uplifted to form the Olympic Peninsula.

The sea star was sent to the Burke Museum, where it will be studied and put on display along with a discussion of the importance of national parks in preserving fossil resources. Mr. Fradkin, however, says that park visitors are just as vital to paleontology as the park itself.

“These fossils are out there,” he said. “If a vigilant visitor hadn’t noticed it, we would never have found it.”

Comments

“This is indeed fabulous and beautiful and so amazingly unusual.” ...Until, on the advice of the Burke Museum (what did they expect the Burke to say?) it was ripped from the rock where it has resided for the last 20 million years or so.

Better researchers than "collectors" who will chisel it out and sell it.

The sea star was a very significant find. They decided to remove the specimen and house it at the Burke so it would [not] erode and be lost to science. While many "collectors" exhibit poor ethics and sell specimens, many of the most significant paleontological finds have come from amateur collectors. Please do not paint them all with the same brush. History, science and our communities owe their avid enthusiasm to collecting a big thank you.

Heidi Henderson aka Fossil Huntress
Chair, Vancouver Paleontological Society

Half of this beautiful fossil was already missing when we found the current specimen. The rock most likely cracked along a weak plane in the sandstone during a late spring storm. Washed up logs can have a strong impact - literally - on the rocks along the coast. It hadn't been exposed for very long before it was found. On comparing pictures taken from the first day to just a few weeks later, we could see how quickly the details were fading, which is why the decision was made to remove the fossil from the area. We documented the removal and if you happen to visit the Kalaloch area this summer, be sure to stop by the Visitor Center where we'll have pictures of both the seastar and the removal of it. Also be sure to check local program schedules as educational programs are scheduled about the seastar. The species has not been identified as specimens from this area and time period are quite rare.