Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education

5Jul/09Off

A Tale of the Hunt for Fossil Shark Teeth

As someone who has been a lifelong fossil collector, I have a terrible, unforgivable sin to admit: I lived for eight years in North Carolina and never knew of the existence of Aurora, NC.

Mind you, since moving here for graduate school, fossil hunting had fallen off of my priority list, largely owing to the fact that central Carolina rocks are basically all metamorphic (melted and recrystallized by heat and pressure). And I've never been the gung-ho research-fossil-sites-and-go-hunting type. Since I began collecting while living in the Ozark mountains, it was more of a walk-through-my-parents-woods-and-see-what-fossils-I-find-today sort of hobby, with a few far-flung excursions in the mix.

Well that all changed a few weeks ago. My wife, some friends, and I spent a couple of days at Topsail Beach, NC.

Actually - scratch that - it began a few month's ago, when Christie at Observations of a Nerd reported an awesome find of fossil shark teeth in Florida, and then - like the wonderful person she is - sent me a handful of them.

Shark Teeth from the wonderful Christie

Shark Teeth from the wonderful Christie (Note to Christie - they are ray dental plates - not stingray barbs - just learned that - see below)

Back to Topsail Beach, circa a few weeks ago.

I said to myself, "Self - it's the ocean - there are bound to be fossil shark teeth. You (I) will not allow me (myself) to leave this beach without finding at least one shark tooth."

So I spent all my beach time on Saturday perusing the sands for teeth.

To no avail whatsoever. I never saw one.

The next day, I began again, searching much more intently. While combing the fresh tide-swept beach, I saw a tiny black triangle amidst the shells. It was a shark's tooth!!

The filters through which my perception is sifted were now calibrated. Within the next few hours I had a nice handful of tiny teeth. I was ecstatic.

(Note for the fossil pros and beach inhabitants out there: feel free to laugh at my ignorance of what constitutes awesome shark teeth. But these were just about the coolest things I had ever found - at the time.)

Hold your applause - you aint seen nothing yet

Hold your applause - you ain't seen nothing yet

Tiger Sharks - grrrr...er...meow

Tiger Sharks - grrrr...er...meow

Thus was I hooked on shark teeth.

The next necessary stops in my tale are the mountains of West Virginia and hills of Pennsylvania.

Some of you know that I will recently begin a new job at Carnegie Mellon University. As such, we have driven there twice recently. I am utterly awed by the massive amount of roadcuts through the mountains of the two states, all of which reveal millions upon millions of years of Earth's natural history in it's geological strata. I felt the fossil-hunting bug really kick up several notches while driving through those strata.

Thus, in anticipation of my move, I began hunting online for potential fossil sites in Pennsylvania. In this endeavor I discovered The Fossil Forum. Through this forum, I discovered not only a huge community of avid fossil hunters, experts, and enthusiasts, but also that North Carolina has some of the most amazing shark tooth sites in the country.

"Self," says I, "it's bad enough that you've been here so long without discovering North Carolina's fossil sites - but now you are leaving? I forbid you (myself) from leaving until you have visited these sites. Got it?"

It was decided - the July fourth weekend was my only free one from now until the move, thus I would make it a fossil-hunting weekend. I would spend Friday in Aurora, NC and Saturday at Green's Mill Run, a creek in Greenville, NC.

As fate would have it (though we will soon see that the result would have been the same with any weekend, fate or no) a dude by the name of MikeDOTB (Michael Taggert) on the Fossil Forum, was also making the exact same trip this weekend. We decided to meet at the shark-digging piles at the Aurora Fossil Museum on Friday (Note to parents in NC - TAKE YOUR KIDS HERE! Free digging teeth by the thousands to their little hearts' content). Mike said he would be there by 7AM and I would try to get there by 9AM (it's a 3.5 hour drive for me).

NOTE: See Mike's Trip Report here - he has some amazing shark teeth!

I was too excited. I couldn't sleep at all the night before. So I slid out of bed and out the door at 3AM arriving at the piles in Aurora by 6:30AM. (The piles are Pungo River Formation sediment - age ~18-22 million years -  donated by the nearby PCS phosphate mine).

It was just me. Not a soul in sight anywhere. Alone - in a beautiful dawn with giant piles of Miocene sediment to sift through at my leisure.

I saw my first tooth within about ten seconds of glancing at the piles. My collection grew fast and linearly from that point onward. Before too very long, a nice man showed up to sift as well. It turned out that he was a Fossil Forum member too (runner50) - a Kansas Science teacher on a trip around the country to spread his recently deceased wife's ashes at their favorite locations (including St. Claire, Pennsylvania which has some amazing fern fossils, which he showed me). Many of the ancient teeth he was collecting were for his students/class. Despite the sadness of his tale, it was incredibly heartening to meet such a man teaching in Kansas, a place we all probably know needs good science teachers!

In the wild

In "the wild"

Mike showed up later than he had planned, but as soon as he got there we hit another nearby pile, meeting a guy named Brian in the process. We chatted for quite a few hours as the three of us sifted for teeth in a couple different locations. Brian, another Fossil Forum member, gave me a dolphin vertebra among other things.

Dolphin Vertebra - Thanks Brian!!

Dolphin Vertebra - Thanks Brian!!

Fossil enthusiasts are awesome people, based on the few I've met!

Mike, Brian, and Me - sifting the piles in Aurora, NC

Mike, Brian, and Me - sifting the piles in Aurora, NC

Mike, showing how its done with his giant 1/2 mesh screen

Mike, showing how it's done with his giant 1/2'' mesh screen

The piles

The piles

I almost look like a real paleontologist. Or not...

I almost look like a real paleontologist. Or not...

Before the day was up I had amassed a huge pile of little shark teeth, though no lunkers had given themselves up. I had already watched in envy as Mike pulled several beautiful teeth from the piles. However, I wasn't really jealous, as I was too excited from the insane numbers of teeth I  was finding with my smaller 1/4" mesh screen. After about 13 hours straight (no lunch break or anything), darkness began to loom. So Mike decided to collapse the pile we had been digging into. Wet internal sediment began falling and we both began picking through it as more fell. In about a third of a second a shiny glint caught my eye in the muddy dirt. I snapped at it like a greedy hungry chicken.

It was a big Extinct Giant Mako (Isurus hastalis)!

Extinct Giant Mako make-o me happy

Extinct Giant Mako make-o me happy

Also, it had a small bit of feeding damage at the very tip (which makes it only cooler to me). Now go back and compare that to my first teeth from Topsail...

Without further ado, I give you the rest of my collection from Friday, filled with makos, tigers, sand tigers, snaggletooths, cow sharks, and even one small  nearly complete tooth and some pieces of megatoothed sharks (C. megalodon and/or chubitensis).

Note: I have zero tooth ID skills, so forgive any errors. There are almost certainly teeth "out of place"! I arranged these pretty quickly.

(Click for larger)

The Catch

The Multi-Million Year Old Catch

Arent they pretty?

Aren't they pretty?

A few of these were given to me by Mike - I don't remember which ones. Thanks Mike! He also gave me the coolest thing I now own...keep reading.

Tigers and Snaggletooths

Snaggletooths and Tigers

Sand Tigers et al

Sand Tigers et al

Megalodon/Chubiitensis?

Megalodon/Chubitensis?

Makos, Giant megalodon chunck, and others...

Makos, giant megalodon chunk, and others...

Lemon sharks and others?

Requiems, Coppers, Hammerheads? No idea...

Broken cow sharks

Broken cow sharks

Ray dental plates (for grinding munchies)

Ray dental plates (for grinding munchies)

The little guys (Mike estimated ~1200 total teeth)

The little guys (Mike estimated ~1200 total teeth)

Did you know a single shark can go through 30,000 teeth in a lifetime?

Did you know a single shark can go through 30,000 teeth in a lifetime?

And of course, I found some other cool stuff as well...

Shark Vertebrae

Shark Vertebrae

How cool is that?

How cool is that?

Coral

Coral

Love the detail in these things!

Love the detail in these things!

So I had a great haul - and searing back and arms as payment to Mother Nature for her bounty. But back pain or no, we had another whole day to go.

Mike and I high-tailed it to Greenville and crashed at the Motel 6, after spending at least an hour rinsing and gawking at our fossils. Mike gave me most of his teeth, except for the near perfect ones he deemed fitting for his collection. What an awesome dude!

Then again, this is a guy who has 30,000 teeth! Also, he seemed to know every single shark species, their scientific names, whom is thought to have begat whom evolutionarily, and he could instantly tell the ID of each tooth. Oh yeah, and remember how I said "Fate" had led me to want this trip at the exact same time that Mike announced that he was planning a trip? Yeah, well, he has gone on this trip almost every weekend since January.

Yeah - he's an enthusiast alright... Thanks Mike - you rock!

We awoke the next morning and headed for the dirty, trash-filled, broken glass-laden creek running near East Carolina University campus known as "Green's Mill Run." This place is famous for yielding big megalodons and great whites (and ancient soft drink bottles and bongs). The creek cuts through layers from the cretaceous to the pliocene, so things found in it can range from about 2.5 to 145 million years old!

The story was much the same at "GMR". I found quite a few great teeth (though I didn't feel as inclined to pick up every tiny tooth after the previous day), including another awesome Mako.

This was while I was still clean...

This was while I was still clean...

Mike found an AMAZING great white, and lot's of other great teeth - many of which he gave to me.

Mikes Great Whites - beautiful

Mike's Great Whites

I sat and watched an awesome freshwater eel hunting minnows in one beautifully sunny pool - a first for me. We didn't have freshwater eels in NW Arkansas (that I'm aware of).

Mike found and gave me what I easily consider the coolest fossil I now own (he already has several): the fossilized inner ear bone of a whale. What kind? not a clue.

Whales inner earbone

Whale's inner earbone

We visited one particular spot in the creek that cuts through this crazy shell layer filled with huge scallops and various mollusks.

Sea Scallop (as opposed to land scallop)

Fossil Sea Scallop (as opposed to land scallop)

Some sort of big bivalve - and WHOLE!

Some sort of big bivalve - whole and heavy!

By 6PM my back and arms would not let me sift a single more shovel load. Thus we called it a day.

Here's the total haul from Saturday:

The GMR Catch

The GMR Catch

What would have been HUGE megalodons, a very nice Mako, and a root-less great white

What would have been HUGE megalodons, a very nice Mako, and a rootless great white

The Makos and the White

The Makos and the White

The other shark teeth

The other shark teeth

Another cool fossil that exists by the millions in GMR is the belemnite. Belemnites were cephalopods related to modern cuttlefish. Only one part of it's body is normally fossilized: a calcite rod in it's body that assists in maintaining proper buoyancy. These things are just cool looking - orange and long and pointy, with a translucent character in the water.

Fossilized Belemnite guards (or rostrum)

Fossilized Belemnite guards (or rostrum)

And finally, the creek has quite a lot of pieces of whalebone:

Fossilized whale bone

Fossilized whale bone (and a cretaceous oyster - according to Mike)

All in all, this was by far the coolest natural history excursion I've been on (or perhaps second best behind a trip to Big Bend where I found an ammonite 4 feet in diameter - I left it there).  If you read this far - I hope you enjoyed my tale. If you didn't...well... you can't see this anyway.

The total weekend haul!

The total weekend haul!

Cat included for scale :)

Cat included for scale :)

Next up: fossil hunting in Pennsylvania in the next month or two! When exactly or where I don't know. But it will be fun!