Geologist explains what lays underneath the Pioneer Valley

Aug 2 2018

Geologist explains what lays underneath the Pioneer Valley

July 13, 2018 | Jordan Houston

Geologist Richard Little brought numerous rocks and demonstrations to his presentation at the Agawam Public Library, including an actual dinosaur footprint.
Reminder Publications by Jordan Houston.

AGAWAM – Pioneer Valley’s history is written in the landscape. Geologist Richard Little shared Agawam’s geologic stories with an audience at the town’s public library on July 10.

Around 40 people filed into the Agawam Public Library at 7 p.m. to learn from the Greenfield Community College Geology Professor Emeritus. For the next hour and a half, Little spoke about the lava outpourings of Agawam, dinosaurs and Lake Hitchcock – New England’s greatest glacial lake. He also sold copies of his book, Dinosaurs, Dunes, and Drifting Continents: The Geohistory of the Connecticut Valley, and two DVDs for $5 each.

The geologist explained how the diversity of the region makes it an exemplary location to study the landscape, with dinosaur footprints in the sedimentary rocks in the Connecticut Valley, Metamorphic rocks in the Berkshires and lava flow through Agawam.

“I have said this many times over the decades, but we have the best place in the world to study geology because everything is so compact,” said Little. “In one, three-hour lab period in your geology class, you can get out and study so much. Someone from Utah said they have the best geology, but you can’t spend one hour driving across Utah to see all three rock types and a glacial lake.”

He gave a brief overview of the geologic history of the Connecticut Valley, dating back to the Mesozoic Era – when Pangaea began to split. Besides the big split of the Atlantic, he explained, many smaller faults cracked the land due to the stretching stresses. These “rift valleys” formed the initial drainage of the ancestral Connecticut Valley.

Little also told the audience that Lake Hitchcock has 4,000 different years recorded in its varve chronology from approximately 18,000 to 14,000 years ago, and that there is evidence of Paleoindian sites along the shorelines.

He then moved on to the topic of dinosaurs – which are mainly preserved as footprints in the Mesozoic sedimentary rocks of the Connecticut River Valley. Little outlined the most common types of dinosaur tracks found in the sedimentary layers, which include Eobrontes, Gigandipus, Otozoum, Anchisauripus, Grallator, Anomoepus and Batrachopus. Although these are the most common, there are other types of tracks that don’t fit into these seven categories, he said.

He proceeded to show an actual dinosaur footprint that he brought with him to the presentation.

Next up were armored mud balls, which are sedimentary features “unique” to The Valley. The balls formed in the Mesozoic sedimentary layers when streams rolled balls of hard mud downstream. As the mud became round, soft and sticky, sand and pebbles attached on the outside as “armor.” They were quickly buried by other stream deposits and eventually lithified.

Lithified armored mud balls have only been found in about 10 other localities in the world. Little was the first person to discover one in the region. He showed a photo of one he found on the Turners Falls side of the Connecticut River at Unity Park.

He joked that this was his “claim-to-fame.”

The event was part of the library’s Adult Summer Reading Program, which is sponsored by the Agawam Center Library Association MA Cultural Council MA Library System, Boston Bruins, David M. & Marjorie J. Sherman Fund, MA Board of Library Commissioners and CSLP.

“I really enjoy learning about this, and if you enjoy learning about something yourself, I think you want other people to know what you know,” Little told Reminder Publications. “I want other people to know what I know so they can go across the whole world, and maybe even to other planets, and see that the phenomenon right in front of them has a history and a story to tell.”

“I feel sorry for people who go to places and bring home all these pretty pictures, and yet, have no idea what the meaning is,” he continued. “If I can take people to those places, whether local or long distance, and train their eyes – that’s a skill they can take with them.”

Little grew up in coastal New Hampshire and attended Clark University for his bachelor’s. He moved on to the University of Southern California for a master’s degree in Geomorphology. He completed his thesis in Iran and Pakistan in 1968.

Little landed his first job as a Geology Professor at Greenfield Community College, and has been there ever since. He retired about 15 years ago, he explained, but remained at the school as a Professor Emeritus. In 2004, he was inducted into the Massachusetts Science Educator Hall of Fame.

The seasoned geologist said he didn’t always know he wanted to study geology.

“I went to college at Clark and had one more course to take as a freshman during that fall semester. My advisor told me to take something I don’t know anything about, so I said, ‘What’s geology?’” he said. “ There was one part of a field trip we were in Worcester. We went to park in the city, standing on a hill, and the trip leader said, ‘you’re on a drumlin.’ I sat there amazed to think, ‘I’m standing on this hill and it has so much meaning.’ It turned out my whole career has revolved around teaching people the wonders of the earth.”

Aside from public presentations, Little offers “Fantastic Landscapes” tours where he takes groups of people across the country – and the world – to renowned landscapes. He is currently in the process of booking tours for Death Valley, Yosemite, and Iceland.

For more information on his tours, head over to his website at

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