The Father of Invention
Eric was a man possessed. Hunkered in a booth in a bar near Baltimore’s Penn Station he quietly laid out his plans for world domination. The micro-world of paleonotology TV anyway. His was a reasonable ambition married to fevered passion. Little did I realize it was contagious.
When I met Eric he was a burly guy in his early 30s with a crew cut and goatee. A Maryland native, he'd spun his fossil hunting hobby into a sideline giving paleontology talks to school kids. Now he was thinking television. Eric had a contact list that included the Maryland State Paleontologist and a boyhood neighbor of mine, Alan. Hoping to pool our TV contacts to sell Eric’s idea, Alan proposed we collaborate on the project. I was intrigued enough to take an Amtrak down from Manhattan for a meeting.
I'd harbored a latent fascination with things prehistoric since childhood. That interest was rekindled when I stumbled on fossils in upstate NY. But I was operating in a vacuum, without method. Meeting Eric would change all that. Eric would become my mentor of the Miocene, my paleo guru, my avatar of the antediluvian.
Alan, Eric and I decided to make a demo video to pitch the fossil show. We spent that winter e-mailing scripts back and forth. When spring arrived it was time for me to make another trip to Maryland, this time to scout locations for the shoot. This would be my first visit to Calvert Cliffs.
Calvert Cliffs below Matoaka Cabins, good for coral, snails, clams...and fallen trees
The night before the scout I stayed at Eric’s house in suburban Baltimore, sleeping in one of his kid’s beds, surrounded by Thomas the Tank Engine and of course, stuffed dinosaurs. Eric’s fossil collection, like many an amateur’s, was in his basement, the steps down littered with trackway casts and shell shocked slabs. A display case spanning the far wall held a mammoth molar, whale bones, shark and crocodile teeth, most culled from the Miocene deposits exposed along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.
But Eric was missing one trophy, probably the most coveted fossil of Sunday paleontologists from Annapolis to Miami: a megalodon tooth. Charcharodon megalodon was the largest shark that ever lived. All it's left to commemorate its sojourn on earth are fat, flat teeth that can be over six inches long. Based on the tooth-to-body ratio of living great whites, that would give you a shark the size of a city bus.
We rose early and drove a couple of hours south into Calvert County, a peninsula bounded by the Chesapeake Bay to the east and the Patuxent River to the west. Calvert Cliffs form a near continuous wall along the western shore of the Chesapeake over 25 miles long and sometimes topping 100 feet high. They were formed when dropping sea levels carved into marine sediments left behind some 5 to 26 million years ago. To this day wind, rain and waves continue to erode the cliffs, freeing fossils imprisoned since the Miocene Epoch -- as well as the occasional tree from the bluffs above.
In St. Leonard we turned down a dirt road through oak woods and emerged onto the grounds of a ramshackle vacation cabin complex. This former summer camp afforded spectacular views of the bay and precious access to the shoreline. A footpath bounced down steep wooden steps and through a grove of rattling bamboo before spilling out onto the narrow, in many places nonexistent, beach. The low surf of the bay pummeled the sand, which was littered with sheet-white shells. I was later informed by a Smithsonian paleontologist that most of these shells are fossils liberated from the cliffs.
Inspecting slabs of coquina; one such slab packed with the large scallop Chesapecten
As Eric showed us around he pointed out fallen blocks of clay at the foot of the cliffs. Sandwiched within were fragile, softball sized scallops called Chesapecten. Named after the bay, they were the first fossils described in the New World. He said the surf washed the fossils out of the cliffs and often deposited them in with the gravel accumulating along the waterline. To prove his point he began to pluck specimens off the beach: a piece of ray dental plate, a scrap of ossified bone, a chunk of coral from the bay's tropical past.
Even though I was supposed to be sizing up the location for production purposes I found my eyes increasingly drawn to the sand at my feet. I scrunched down on the ground and scrutinized the scree. I tweezed up what looked like a tiny thorn no more than an eighth of an inch long and showed it to Eric. He swore, “How did you find that?!” On a shore where people hunt the biggest shark teeth that ever existed I had found the smallest. It was nonetheless auspicious as it was the first fossil shark tooth I ever collected.
But I felt like a complete Johnny-come-lately next to the locals. Any given day on any public beach you'll see folks ambling along the tide line, eyes on the sand, stooping periodically to pick up some bit of "float". We met a mom and two sons lugging a tackle box brimming with hundreds of shark teeth. The habit went back generations in their family. Even their grandmother had collected fossils as a child and was still happy to lie on a blanket on the beach and pick through the sand. Beachcombing is the preferred method with most people. The best time is at the crack of dawn when you hope you'll be the first set of eyes to scour the shore. Next best is ebb tide when any wave could strand a tooth on the widening beach.
Shark teeth of Calvert Cliffs: Hemipristis serra (snaggletooth) Isurus oxyrinchus (mako)
We held the shoot a few weeks later. The crew consisted of Alan, Eric and myself joined by an eager young cameraman, a grouchy sound guy and a buddy just helping out. Our first day of shooting went okay, but Eric was unhappy with the dirth of gravel on the beach. While we settled into one of the cabins on the bluff that night, Eric went down to the beach in the dark to shovel up bigger piles of shell, gravel and fossils for the next day’s shooting. I yearned to join him but felt obliged to stay behind and play poker with the crew.
The climax of the video was to be Eric's demonstration of snorkeling for megalodon teeth. But this was the first week of May and the Chesapeake was still too chilly for wading, much less swimming, without insulation. So Eric rented a wetsuit for himself and hip waders for the rest of us so we could follow him into the surf. Our next production worry was we couldn't count on actually finding a meg tooth, nor did Eric own one. We turned to the cottage owners, a lovely couple who had been beachcombing there for eons. Connie led us inside their house chattering how some kid had found a meg on the beach just days before. Eric cursed under his breath. When she blithely yanked open a flat file drawer full of monster teeth I could sense the fossil-lust rising in him next to me. Connie kindly offered to lend us a tooth for the shoot, we picked a medium sized specimen about 3 inches long. Thus Eric was able to enact finding a meg tooth by snorkeling along the troughs between the sandbars offshore.
Eric in action on the beach and at the Calvert Marine Museum (courtesy Hawkeye Films).
We wound up our two day shoot at the nearby Calvert Marine Museum. There Eric waxed enthusiastic from within the jaws of their 39 foot recreation of a megalodon skeleton. Steve, the resident paleontologist, demonstrated how researchers figure megalodons ate marine mammals by fitting two meg teeth into grooves found gouged in a fossil whale bone. When Steve laid one of these prize teeth on my open palm it completely covered my hand.
The demo was finished and pitched to all the likely outlets, but it has yet to be picked up. I thought Eric did a good job on camera. His enthusiasm was definitely infectious. One key principle he preached was ingenuity. He lamented that there were few tools, geologist’s hammers excepted, made expressly for fossil hunting. So he advocated keeping an eye out for other implements that could be turned to the purpose, like sand castle sieves, ice picks and pill bottles. He showed how to make a long handled scoop by duct taping a kitchen strainer to a curtain rod, or an underwater viewer by cutting the bottom out of a five gallon pail. I was yet in the first flush of my fossil hunting career and these lessons stuck with me.
Soon afterward I discovered fossil hunting grounds closer to home: the shark infested streams of central New Jersey. Collecting conditions there were much the same as in Maryland: shark teeth needing separation from gravel. I amassed a variety of sieves by scouring hardware stores and cookware shops. I found the most useful ones in Chinatown. I also built several of my own, nailing quarter inch mesh to wooden frames. But I also wished for a tool that could dig into sand and gravel and sift in one fell swoop, a long handled implement that would save wear and tear on my aging lumbar. Kitchen strainers lashed to poles didn’t really cut it. I thought of buying a shovel and drilling it full of holes, or wrapping quarter inch mesh around a garden pitchfork. Then an idea came to me from my high school days: a lacrosse stick. A lacrosse stick with metal mesh instead of leather thongs for a basket.
I went to a sporting goods store to price them and discovered they ain’t cheap. And the frames on the newer models are made of more flexible plastic than the sturdily stiff ones I remembered. So I filed that idea in the back of my mind. Then, one evening as I walked home in Manhattan, I stumbled on the detritus of a freshly cleared basement waiting at a curb for the morning garbage trucks. And lo and behold there was an old STX lacrosse stick, it’s webbing gnarled and fetid but the frame and handle light and stout. I took it home, cleaned it up, cut the old webbing off, fashioned a new pocket out of quarter inch steel mesh and lashed it to the frame with baling wire. I couldn’t wait to try it out.
At the next opportunity I took it to Ramanessin Brook in NJ. It worked pretty well, better in sand bars than heavy gravel. But it added variety to my search techniques so it became part of my standard kit. Naturally I took it with me when I finally returned to the site of my introduction to fossil hunting, Calvert Cliffs, on an organized NYPS excursion.
Scientists Cliffs, June 2007
The June weather was gorgeous, and we were lucky enough to be hosted by a paleontologist who lived above the stretch of shore known as Scientists Cliffs. At the top of the stairs leading down to the bay is a stone hut. Inside is a display of local fossils, shark and cetacean teeth, that served to make us even more anxious to hit the beach. When we did I realized there were so many eyes on the sand I might do better using the stick to sift the gravel tumbled under the breaking surf. And I did indeed begin to find fossils that way: ray dental plates, tiger and requiem shark teeth. As we moved up the shore I’d take a few scoops to test the frequency of specimens, finding enough to keep me pushing on, but nothing to write home about.
Finally I hit a sweet spot. It was in a stretch of the sort of shell-free gravel our host Dave had advised we watch out for. Suddenly I was getting vertebrate fossils in nearly every scoop, sometimes several at a time: ray dental plates and shark teeth, including some lovely serrated Hemipristis serra snaggletooths. No megs unfortunately, not even the little ones. I did find what looked like a crescent of brown bone, but no bone I recognized. When Dave ambled by on the beach I held it up and asked if he knew what it was. He got all agitated and talked me ashore like a cop coaxing a jumper off a ledge. “Don’t drop it!” If I had it would have vanished in the surf roiling around my knees. Safely on dry land he turned my discovery in his fingers, “That’s pretty cool”, he said, “a sperm whale tooth.”
Shark vertebrae Crocodile tooth Sperm whale tooth Crab claws Ray plates
Our second day we met up the coast at Brownie’s Beach, but the weather had turned on us. A perpetual drizzle, whipped by an incoming storm, stung our legs and faces. Still, a friend and I waded down the shore where the beach disappeared and was replaced by piles of clay slabs collapsed from the cliffs above. This didn’t seem the safest place to linger, especially in the pelting rain, though I knew those slabs could contain fossils (my friend dug a whale vertebra out of one). I scooped up many small shark teeth, or spied them along the waterline as the tide withdrew. But after a couple of hours we called it quits.
The iconic gastropod Ecphora; 1-3/4 inch Mako shark tooth as found amid Turritella at Cove Point.
I’ve been back to Calvert Cliffs several times since. I've shared the beach with a bevy of blue herons on dawn patrol, watched bald eagles and ospreys wheel over the bay, and unsuccessfully dodged stinging jellyfish in the breakers. But the Chesapeake is an ecosystem in crisis. Decades of industrial pollution, rampant development and runoff from poultry farms has left the bay a shadow of its former self. The crabs for which it is famed and other marine life are vanishing. Soon there may be nothing left but the fossils, tokens of an older, richer fauna.
Of those I've scooped a beautiful inch and an eighth long crocodile tooth from the surf at Scientists, and 50 tiny shark teeth in an hour at Brownie's. After a storm we discovered Cove Point littered with millions of Turritella gastropods and a handful of small, exquisite Ecphoras (the Maryland state fossil). My partner and I both plucked large Mako shark teeth off that beach, though not quite the two and a half incher we saw a local snatch up the day before.
Still the megs elude us. I asked Dave how frequently megalodon teeth are found. He’d kept tally and said if he walked the beach every day he’d find maybe one a month. That doesn’t give us weekenders great odds. But the lacrosse stick turned out to be the ideal tool for working the gravel along those shores, a fitting testament to the ingenuity of my first fossil hunting teacher.
Braving jellyfish to sift in the surf, July '08.