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.