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Pro­fessor of Biology Anthony Swinehart has dis­covered a new species of hickory tree, the carya pipecreekensis. Christian Peck-Dimit | Collegian

After mul­tiple decades of work and research, Pro­fessor of Biology Anthony Swinehart has dis­covered a new species of hickory tree, the carya pipecreekensis. Along with this dis­covery comes proof for a sig­nif­icant spatio-tem­poral range extension of Ginkgo­phyta (a division of gym­nosperms that includes the maid­enhair tree and its extinct rel­a­tives) in North America. 

The dis­covery came as part of the first ever late Neogene fossil assem­blage from the interior of the eastern half of North America, and thus has an incredible impact on the sci­en­tific community. 

“I don’t have any kids, so there’s my immor­tality,” Swinehart said. “It’s quite a privilege.”

The site of these dis­cov­eries lies in north­eastern Indiana, known as the Pipe Creek Sinkhole. It was dis­covered back in 1996 by a com­mercial lime­stone company that was digging in the area.

Upon finding this sinkhole, James Farlow, a col­league of Swinehart, was called in. It didn’t take long for him to realize the sig­nif­i­cance of the site.

“Right about the time of my birthday, I visited the Pipe Creek Sinkhole.” Farlow said. “I got out of the van, and after only a few steps across the deposit I found a rhi­noceros tooth. What a birthday present! I knew then that this site was going to be special.”

Before long, Farlow dis­covered just how special the Pipe Creek site truly was.

“It is the total diverse assem­blage of plants, inver­te­brates, and large and small ver­te­brates: a rhino, camels, bear, bone-crushing dog, skunk, badger, lynx, deer, shrew, rodents, snakes, sala­manders, turtles, fishes, and huge numbers of frogs.” Farlow said. “A time capsule of crea­tures that lived in and around a fresh­water sit­u­ation on a dry land­scape, roughly 5 million years ago.”

In 1998, Farlow called Swinehart, who he describes as a top expert in plant and inver­te­brate fossils from fresh­water assem­blages, asking him to aid in the project.

“He asked me to be the lead author on every­thing botanical on the site,” Swinehart said. “In addition to all of the big crazy stuff, there were volumes of wood and leaf impres­sions and seeds.”

The official abstract of the fossil plants and inver­te­brate assem­blage state a large number of fossil finds.

“Exam­i­nation of macro­fossils from the late Neogene Pipe Creek Sinkhole yielded 15 dis­tinct plant taxa, one fungal taxon, and six inver­te­brate taxa,” the abstract reads. “Fossil nuts of a new species, Carya pipecreekensis Swinehart and Farlow sp. nov., are described.”

Though nearly 22 years passed between his taking on of the project and its com­pletion, Swinehart is grateful for the elon­gated process.

“Boy am I glad I dragged my feet, because I don’t think that I could have dis­covered the things that I dis­covered had I attempted it earlier,” Swinehart said. “I developed as a sci­entist over that time, and we ended up getting the scanning electron micro­scope (SEM), which I can’t even begin to describe how that helped in this project.”

With the aid of the SEM, as well as some thesis stu­dents, Swinehart was able to dis­cover and describe the Carya pipecreekensis, a type of hickory tree that existed about 5 million years ago. This dis­covery was made based on a fos­silized nut that was found in the sinkhole, the first of its kind.

“All my life, I dreamed of describing my own new species that’s never been described before, and this was probably the best oppor­tunity — maybe the only oppor­tunity — I’ll ever have.”

Sur­pris­ingly enough, Swinehart said that the find was indeed a lucky one.

“The whole reason that I was asked to be part of the study was because I was net­working. I gave a pre­sen­tation at the Indiana Academy of Science, and because of that, a door opened.” Swinehart said. “The luck was that Farlow was there, and he had a project that he needed help on.”

In addition to the dis­covery of the new species, Swinehart’s findings on the spatio-tem­poral range extension might be a more important breakthrough.

“That actually may be an even more sig­nif­icant find in the paper than the new species in my opinion.” Swinehart said. “What this find sug­gests is a stronger plant com­ponent in North America, and it extends the time we know it was alive here.”

Before this dis­covery, tree fossils from the same genus were believed to have died out in North America nearly 50 million years ago. Swinehart’s find extended that time by more than 45 million years.

According to Swine­heart, the dis­covery holds immense weight not just for science, but for theology.

“As a person of faith, for those people that say ‘Oh, who cares, it’s some dumb seed of some dumb plant that doesn’t exist anymore,” it reminds me of one of the first com­mands that God gave to man: give every species a name. Why? Why would you give every species a name? I gave my dog, Trooper, a name,” Swinehart said. “Why did I spend so much time thinking of the perfect name for Tropper? Because he has value to me, and there must be value in every living creature if we’re sup­posed to think of a name for everyone.”