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Hoonah science teacher receives ageless honor

Strophatrypa skaflestadi name given to fossil discovery

Posted: July 9, 2011 - 10:06pm

Retired Hoonah science teacher Jeff Skaflestad probably won’t be sticking his name on a license plate any time soon, at least the name recently bestowed in his honor, it just wouldn’t fit.

“It’s a mouthful,” Skaflestad said of having his name attached to a new fossil discovered near the small southeastern town of 800. Skaflestad retired in 2009 after 20 years teaching at HHS. “In the classroom I have been called worse. Everyone thinks you are named after T-rex or something, but this is an animal related to clams.”

Strophatrypa skaflestadi was found in the Hoonah area last summer.

A team of geological investigators was working on a thesis in the northeastern area of Chichagof Island. The work was headed by Robert Blodgett, a Brachiopod geological consultant from Anchorage, and David Rohr, a Mollusk expert from Sul Ross State University in Alpine Texas.

Brachiopods are a phylum of marine animals that have hard valves or shells on the upper and lower surfaces. Most of their species went extinct over 250 million years ago.

“There was a time in history where they were a dominant group,” Skaflestad said. “The time period they are looking for these fossils in was there time in the spotlight so to speak.”

Skaflestad stated that to the every day observer they would appear as regular clams, but experts wax endlessly on the differences.

The team of experts was directed to Skaflestad by his mentor, Glacier Bay National Monument biologist Greg Streveler, who lives in Gustavus.

“He’s the local oracle when it comes to geology, biology, botany, and so forth,” Skaflestad praised. “Everyone starts with him and he either helps them directly or sends them out to where they might get help.”

The team needed to locate particular fossils to help date rock formations and Skaflestad, being born and raised in Hoonah, had the historical and informational landscape knowledge.

“I took them to all the places that I knew had fossils,” Skaflestad. “All the places I had played and explored as a kid. I told them I wasn’t an expert but I knew where things were.”

The team was in Hoonah for about two weeks and a few hours before they were to get on a plane they made the discovery of Strophtrypa skaflestadi.

“It’s quite an honor,” Skaflestad said. “When someone asks you if you mind if they put your name on a fossil I say heck no that is kind of nice. It gets written up and put in a record book, that is quite an honor.”

They researchers believed they would have been in the area for quite a long time or would have left with no discovery if Skaflestad hadn’t put them at the right location.

The rock in which the fossil was discovered also was unique.

“They are thinking about naming the band of material we were finding these fossils in The Hoonah Formation,” Skaflestad said. “Anytime you can benefit the town or anything local I think it is a good thing.”

The researchers plan to return this summer. They believe the area around Hoonah provides an abundance of new data on the faunal composition of Upper Silurian age (428 to 416 million years ago) faunas from deeper-water deposits of the Alexander terrane, an accreted exotic terrane comprising much of Southeastern Alaska.

A “terrane” in geology is a fragment of crustal material formed on or broken off from one tectonic plate and sutured to crust lying on another plate. That fragment preserves its own distinctive geologic history, which is different from that of the surrounding areas, hence the term exotic terrane.

“This place is basically untapped as far significant research of any high level,” Skaflestad said. “We did all this in just a matter of a few days. If we really got serious with a team of grad students and their profs behind them there should be lots of information we could generate.”

Part of the research being conducted concerned plate tectonics, the scientific theory of large-scale motions of Earth’s lithosphere and building on concepts of continental drift. The Hoonah terrane appears to have originated by rifting away from Northeastern Siberia during the subsequent Devonian geological period.

“They believe it will adjust the current thinking of what happened between continents,” Skaflestad said. “All I can understand in their short dirty version to me was that at one time the rock that makes up this part of Southeast Alaska, especially on Northeast Chichagof, started in a rift valley in the Pacific that shares the same origin of a place in Siberia. This age of rock they are looking for was formed in this period and one of the ways they age the rock is looking for these specific fossils in the rock.”

The researchers believe they have recognized many new genera and species, unknown to science, in the Hoonah area and are in the process of describing them for publication.

Now that a new genus of atrypacean brachiopods, “Strophatrypa” has been proposed from the Hoonah site, and its species name, “skaflestadi” is being named in honor of Skaflestad, word will soon get out about the area’s vast untapped geological wonderland.

Other brachiopods and bivalves from the area are being described, as well as on-going current study of what appears to be the oldest known vascular land plants anywhere on the North American continent.

“There is just so much to study here,” Skaflestad said. “Plants are not there area but they have passed it on to colleagues and they have gotten a hold of me. It has always been my hope that anything generated here, either through my direct or indirect endeavors or anyone else, becomes part of a database that the community can use for natural resource or industry development. A database that will show what is going on around here, whether it has to do with water or land or fisheries or whatever. This is a small step. It was one of my dreams as a teacher to be able to do that and I didn’t quite pull it off during my years at the school.”

Skaflestad stated he always had a goal of getting research teams into the area and matching up his high school students with grad students and professors for hands on learning and experience.

“This is what science is all about,” Skaflestad said. “The getting your hands dirty part. There is so much to be studied here, it is untapped.”

Since the researchers have left Skaflestad has dug out more fossils to ship to them and former students have brought in samples to photograph.

“It’s a life long thing,” Skaflestad said. “You don’t ever stop being interested in science. I am always digging and gouging and pulling this up and this out. I am always sending something off to an expert somewhere.”

Skaflestad credits grandfather Alf Skaflestad, a Norwegian immigrant logger and rock hound, with his desire for science. As a kid the pockets on Skaflestad’s pants would wear out from all the rocks brought home from hunting trips or clam digging.

“It was the digging around and looking for minerals as a kid,” Skaflestad said. “I remembered where all these places were that my grandfather showed us. He passed away a few years ago but I like to think he would get a big kick out of this, that our rock packing and chipping got the family name on something. That it eventually had some payoff other than wearing out the washing machine and our pants pockets.”

• Contact reporter Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at klas.stolpe@juneauempire.com.

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