In the olden days

The main reason for my slow blog post production over the last month is a deadline. About a month ago I was asked to write a chapter on vertebrate fossils of Virginia for an upcoming book, and I was told to try to finish it by Christmas. Since more than 500 fossil vertebrate taxa have been reported from Virginia, the task has been taking up a lot (almost all) of my time.

I really enjoy projects like this though, because you get to track down and read some obscure, old references. (OK, to be honest, VMNH librarian Mary Catherine Santoro is doing most of the reference tracking, but I still have to give her the citations and read them when they arrive.) One of the nice things about these projects are the tangents, although they are detrimental to meeting deadlines.

One reference I had to check out was a book chapter in the 1818 edition of Cuvier’s “Essay on the Theory of the Earth”. The chapter was written by an American physician and naturalist, Samuel L. Mitchell, and I was specifically looking for an account of mastodont or mammoth remains from Williamsburg. But I stumbled across the following passage on pages 400-401, referring to a specimen from North Carolina:

“About a year ago, the skeleton of a huge animal was found on the bank of the Meherrin river, near Murfreesborough. It was dug out of a hill, distant sixty miles from the ocean. Capt. Neville and Dr. Fowler, who visited the spot, gathered the scattered vertebrae which the negroes had thrown out, and laid them in a row thirty-six feet in length. If to this the head and tail be added, the creature must have been perhaps fifty feet or more in length. The former of these gentlemen enriched my collection with two of the teeth and a joint of the back bone that he brought away. The teeth weigh sixteen ounces each. They are covered with an ash-coloured enamel, except at the roots where they were fastened in the jaws. Their figure is triangular, the sides towards the apex measuring six inches each, and the base four inches and a half across. The joint of the back is not cartilaginous, but actually bony. It is in some degree petrified, and weighs twelve pounds and a half. It, in all likelihood, belonged to a shark or a sea serpent.”

It’s clear from Mitchell’s description that the teeth are from the giant shark Carcharocles megalodon (Carcharodon megalodon of some authors), like the example at the top from Carmel Church.

What’s remarkable is that Mitchell is also describing a skeleton to go with these teeth. It’s possible that the skeleton was a whale and that the teeth were simply associated with it, but I think this is unlikely. In other parts of the chapter Mitchell talks about skeletons from whales and other animals, and seems quite familiar with their anatomy. Moreover, he expresses some surprise that the vertebrae are ossified (while shark skeletons are cartilaginous, the vertebral centra frequently ossify enough to be preserved as fossils). It seems that Mitchell is describing a C. megalodon associated skeleton and dentition, to my knowledge the only one ever found on the US east coast (cast skeleton below from the Calvert Marine Museum).

Buck Ward tells me that the Meherrin River in the Murfreesboro area cuts through both the late Miocene Eastover Formation and the Pliocene Yorktown Formation. C. megalodon is known from both the Eastover and the lowest member of the Yorktown, the Sunken Meadow Member. Of course, there is a sad ending; as far as I know, the skeleton was not preserved.



Mitchell, S. L., 1818. Observations on the geology of North America; illustrated by the description of various organic remains found in that part of the world, in G. Cuvier, Essay on the Theory of the Earth. New York, Kirk and Mercein, p. 319-431.
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2 Responses to In the olden days

  1. Doug says:

    So sad that the skeleton did not preserve. Could have told us a lot about the anatomy.

    Wow, over 500 fossil vertebrate taxa? Insane! On that note, it says on your museum staff page that your interests include the “Marine and terrestrial ecosystems of Miocene Virginia”. Now it’s obvious where the marine ecosystems come from, but what about terrestrial? Is that based largely on the land lubbers found at Carmel Church? Have any other terrestrial vertebrates been found in Virginia from the Miocene? Also in that vein of thought (the answer will probably be no, but I’m going to ask anyway): any progress on those possible camel teeth from Carmel Church?

  2. Alton Dooley says:

    I should note that more than half of those 500 are Pleistocene.

    There are a total of 12 land mammal taxa reported from Virginia. All of them come from the Calvert Formation, as there are no known terrestrial Miocene deposits here. That number, incidentally, doesn’t include the camel (and it’s definitely a camel); I’ve been working on that, but I’m not yet ready to post any details!

    The Calvert in general has a much larger terrestrial mammals fauna, and it’s reasonable to assume that the Delaware and Maryland faunas extended into Virginia. However, all of the Delaware and much of the Maryland material is from the lower Calvert, and is substantially (~4 Ma) older that the Calvert at Carmel Church and Westmoreland State Park. That’s a lot of time for things to change.

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