Saturday, January 24, 2009


As winter has laid siege to my area in the Northern Hemisphere, temperatures have fallen and stayed low long enough to freeze the edges of the rivers and creeks. In many places, a thin skin of ice stretches across the top of the dark water. The beaches that easily yielded fossil treasures just a few months ago are now covered with an icy mantle of stiff seaweed; the sand itself resists my hands and my shovel. The end of a day spent outside in pursuit of fossils finds me sitting in the car, as the afternoon shadows lengthen, trying with aching unresponsive fingers to grasp the car key. It takes both stiff hands in a claw-like embrace to hold the key, insert it in the ignition switch, and slowly turn it. So little between me and blasting warmth from my car heater; so hard to do.

Despite the passage weeks ago of the winter solstice, this hemisphere is still losing more heat than it is gaining from the lengthening of these gray days. It grows ever colder outside.

This is the time of year to enjoy the warm comforts of the great indoors. I sit at my dining room table, my hands cradling a bowl of . . . gray black material from the Pungo River Formation. I bask in the imagined heat of the waters in which this material was laid down some 15 to 20 million years ago during the Miocene epoch. Yes, winter is the time to explore the world of very small fossils.

My quarry is not actually the “micro” fossil, if one means those fossils seen only under a microscope. Armed on this hunt with small maglite and tweezers, I am in pursuit of tiny fossils that are easily visible to the naked eye, as long as that eye is very, very close to the surface of this world.

I gather the material in the warmer months of the year from the “reject” piles in front of the Aurora Fossil Museum in Aurora, North Carolina – a marvelous museum dedicated primarily to the marine fossils found in abundance at nearby Lee Creek Mine. Over the years, the finds that have been made at the mine have been spectacular; recent ones can still be very good. The reject material (which has gone through the mining process to extract the phosphate) is a salt and pepper accumulation of mostly phosphate sand and small pieces of shells and barnacles. Though the mining experience and casual surface collecting has removed or broken all of the large, easily spotted fossils, what remains includes myriad shells, shark and other fish teeth, tiny fish vertebrae, and echinoid (sea urchin) spines. Riches on a very small scale.

The terrain

In this picture, I've circled the easily spotted (i.e., not so small) prey. From left to right: piece of an Eagle Ray (Myliobatis sp.*) mouthplate; echninoid (sea urchin) spine (to give a sense of size, this is 1 cm in length); and a tooth from a Requiem or Gray shark (Carcharhinus sp.*).

As the wind blows outside and the gray day fades to black, slow exploration of the world in this bowl exposes tiny jewels.

Stingray teeth (probably Dasyatis sp.); male in the middle

Catshark tooth (Scyliorhinus sp.*)

Does this satisfy the fossil hunting urge as I wait for the spring thaw? Not on your life.

*The sp. denotes uncertainty on my part as to the species. I didn't even try to identify genus, much less species, for the sea urchin that lost the spine.

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