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updated: 8/30/2012 8:19 AM

Experts scrutinize family's 'fossil'

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  • Larry and Barbara Weiss, who live on a country road near Pocahontas, with a 20-pound fossil of a bird.

    Larry and Barbara Weiss, who live on a country road near Pocahontas, with a 20-pound fossil of a bird.
    Associated Press

Associated Press

POCAHONTAS -- Barbara Weiss stepped carefully over rocks in a dry creek bed, her head down, searching for a fossil fish like the one that sat on a window sill in her friend Wanda's kitchen.

It was a blue sky, sunny day about 40 years ago at her friend's country home outside the tiny Arkansas community of Osage Mills, when Weiss found a "bird" instead of a fish.

The creature was entombed in a 20-pound chunk of rock. It appeared to be a small song bird with a clearly discernible head and beak. The shoulders of its wings were exposed but the rest of its body was encased in what appeared to be stone-hard prehistoric mud dotted with the fossils of sea shells.

Weiss said that from the moment she spotted it, she never doubted that it was anything other than a bird. She didn't know that her belief was contrary to more than a century of research by paleontologists, or fossil experts.

Weiss carried the rock back to Wanda, walking with her head still down, never taking her eyes off what would soon be declared by family and friends to be a wondrous discovery, a marvel; a little stone bird, the "Weiss Family Bird."

Today it is never taken out of its glass case at the Weiss home on a rural country road near Pocahontas in a boastful manner.

"Pride is a sin," said Larry Weiss as his wife Barbara concurred during a recent interview.

After four decades, the object is a revered family treasure, as familiar as a deceased relative's portrait or a particular vase that is never taken out of a china closet. But when a family member or friend comes over for dinner and asks to see it, the dishes are cleared away and the rock containing the little stone "bird" becomes the center of attention. Years earlier, it was treated more casually.

The couple's grandson Jason Weiss, now 32, took the rock to "show and tell" at Breese Elementary School.

For a decade it made up part of the circle of stones that surrounded Barbara's small garden until someone, she has forgotten who, advised her to take the "bird" into the house.

So it was with considerable interest that Larry and Barbara listened recently to a visitor who claimed to have some knowledge of fossils, who insisted that the Weiss Bird could not exist. And yet there it was, right on the dinner table -- head, perfect beak, what looked like slits for eyes, even the faint outline of feathers on the back if its neck. It seemed to have an angry expression, as if it had realized that it was doomed by mud that had interrupted what might have been a glorious flight.

The visitor took numerous photographs of the image in the rock, and these were sent to paleontologist Michael Foote of the University of Chicago. Foote consulted with a colleague and both quickly came to the same conclusion -- the Weiss Bird is actually a "brachiopod internal mold."

In other words, a sea shell.

He gave this explanation: Imagine a sea shell or brachiopod, like the orange and red Shell Oil Co. logo. At the end opposite the flaring, often beautiful fan of the shell, is a small, beak-like feature. When the shell was alive, there was a top and a bottom shell, each with a beakish thing that fit together and acted as a hinge. The "beak" contained a strong muscle that allowed the primitive animal to open the fan end of its body to feed or for protection. He said that when the animal died, its soft body disintegrated and, "Sediment filled the shell. The sediment hardens and the shell dissolves."

What was left for Barbara Weiss to find was a hard mold of the upper or lower part of the shell's "beak," which looks remarkably like a bird's head. The oozing sediment also formed a hard mold of what looked like the shoulders of a bird's wings. It's not a fossil, but simply the result of molding within the shell.

A paleontologist at the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology in Bethesda, Md., studied the photos and identified the stone-like mud containing the brachiopod beak mold as "horn coral," which he said became extinct 260 million years ago, more than 100 million years before primitive bird-like creatures emerged.

This would mean, of course, that 260 million years ago, what we know of today as Arkansas was covered by an ocean.

Larry and Barbara Weiss said they were happy to learn the truth.

"It's still a cool thing," she said.

"And the only way it could be a bird, is if we lied and said it was," Larry said. "And we never lie."

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