Squalodon Calvertensis quarried from the Calvert Cliffs of Maryland
Article posted in the February 2002 edition of Janus, published
by the North Carolina Fossil Club
By Paul R. Murdoch Jr.
Over the course of several weeks in the Fall of 2001 the Calvert Marine Museum excavated from zone 11 of the Calvert formation along the Western shores of the Chesapeake Bay, what has been preliminarily identified as an adult specimen of the Miocene "shark toothed whale" - Squalodon Calvertensis. This specimen has been most likely eroding out of the cliffs for several years and yet was only recently identified and brought to the attention of the museum when it's teeth and pieces of the skull were found. The following is it's story.
In early September I was in the area to show the staff paleontologist at the CMM, Stephen Godfrey, some partially articulated porpoise vertebra that I was hoping the museum would find of interest and be willing to excavate. (This will be another article in and of itself to follow shortly.) I had extra time to spare that morning before we were to meet up so I decided to go to one of my favorite spots and see what I could find. In the past two trips I had found within 6 feet of the same spot a total of two squalodon teeth (1 incisor & 1 molar) and was hoping to find some more. After spending several minutes at the spot and finding nothing I walked the rest of the beach. Hours later it was now a rather uneventful trip and it was soon time to meet up with the group to go see the porpoise but I wanted to come back to try again. Again after finding nothing I became frustrated and tossed my equipment rather soundly onto the beach. When I did this I noticed that the weight of my belongings hit the beach with enough force that it caused the sand to bounce back up and briefly expose something that caught my eye. I went over to pick it up but it wouldn't budge! I almost gave up on it, thinking it to be a root, but the color, a reddish brown, just wasn't right so I tried to pry it out with a shovel. To my surprise it was a cantaloupe-sized piece of skull, a large squalmosal!!! Now I was ecstatic and didn't want to leave, but I had used up all the time I had available that day but planned on returning immediately the next day.
The trip to the porpoise site went well and even though the site was far from undisturbed there was enough of the specimen present to warrant an excavation attempt. It was a great feeling to know that find would end up in a museum but I couldn't keep wondering if more of the squalodon would be found. I showed everyone the skull piece and loaned it to the CMM for identification and for possible future donation. Everyone was excited to go look for more of it right then and there but everyone's schedule was already full (it was, after all, Labor Day weekend). I, however, had planned for a full fossil weekend and went back the next day and found - - the other squalmosal and another tooth! I also spotted high above in the cliff (30+ feet) what appeared to be bone of the same color as the skull pieces protruding out from the cliff. I immediately informed the museum that much more was most probably still out there to be found and they arranged to visit the site early the next week.
I was unable to attend when the museum went out to the site but the email report I received nearly knocked my socks off! They had recovered from the nearby slump pile the following: the base of the skull where the atlas would attach, the atlas itself, a few cervical vertebra, 13 teeth - including a portion of jawbone with two teeth still intact and several portions of jaw with the roots of the teeth viewable. I was ecstatcic! Other pieces of other animals that were found included: the arm bone of a baleen whale, an 8" piece of porpoise snout and a piece of wahoo jaw with teeth. I was even told that before the museum was able to get to the site another collector had spotted a porpoise skull in the slump but it crumbled when he tried to remove it. All of this that day with the CMM that a collector who was there was impolite to the museum team (to say the least) and who I later heard continued to work the site for his own collection after the museum team left and is reported to currently possess two teeth from the find.
After consulting on the find with the area squaoldon expert, Alton Dooley of the VMNH, it was determined that all of the teeth collected by the CMM seemed to represent only those from the uppers jaws. This was great news!! The lower jaws could have easily detached after the animal's death and may still be located nearby. Also the lack of lumbar and thorasiac vertebra material found in the slump pile had me excited with the possibility that only the very front of the animal had begun to erode out and that the whole animal would be found - if we could get up the cliff to it.
I continued to visit the spot whenever possible and found a vertebra that was identified as being only one of seven known squalodon lumbar vertebras. Although it was not in great shape (it's processes were mostly either damaged or missing) it was an exciting find and is now in the possession of the CMM. Although I was happy to have found more of the animal this made me less confident that all of the squalodon would be found and that in fact only a small portion would still remain in the cliff. Especially considering that the vertebra was found in the water several feet from the slump pile and washed clean of all sediment. I now believed that the specimen most likely had been coming out of the cliffs for a long time and now, only after that the skull and teeth had fallen out, had the find been properly identified and the significance of all of the pieces realized.
News of the find spread like wildfire. Within weeks, the slump pile where the pieces were found was no more as other collectors descended on the spot to see what they could find. Also, reports of collectors bringing ladders to the site to try and reach the possible protruding bone area were received and their presence could be noticed by dig marks and unnatural wearing in the cliff face. Unfortunately this reflects poorly on all fossil collectors and this type of activity will damage future collecting of specimens for both individuals and museums if it continues unchecked.
As days passed an occasional tooth was found, including a beauty by David Bohaska of the NMNH which was donated to the CMM, lending me hope that the find remained intact above and that the teeth had somehow eroded out and tumbled down the cliff face. It soon became evident though that if it still was in the cliff it was over 30 feet up and would be quite a trek. This got me thinking... I had heard through the grapevine that a "friend of a friend" from my high school days had opened one of the premier rock climbing gyms along the east coast and I thought what a better way to get to the find - we will repel to it!! It took several weeks to coordinate everyone's schedule for this trip. The landowner was thrilled that a find of such importance - less than 10 skulls have been found in such as good condition worldwide - was made on her property and readily agreed to grant permission for an excavation. Even though it was severely damaged when it hit and broke up on the beach, it still had details not found in other skulls. Finally all was a go and on a beautiful November day we all meet to see what we could find.
The day of the dig did not start well for myself and the rock-climbing guide. Although traveling separately, both of us had to contend with a horrible accident on I-95 involving a tractor trailer, a tanker and a minivan which closed all 4 lanes in the opposite direction. Needless to say we got a very late start and it was well after 1:00 when the Stephen cautiously went down the cliff with the guide to check out the spot. We were instantly rewarded...
The fractured ends of both of the lower jaws was in the cliffs and teeth were present!!! It was also possible that the front of the upper jaws and snout was intact as well. Quarrying quickly began and continued through the day. It soon became evident that it would go longer than the time allotted and the exposed bones were jacketed and a return trip planned ASAP. It would be until December 11th that schedules could be coordinated and a return trip made. Mother Nature was not as kind to us this time with colder weather, a stiff breeze and harsh tides making the effort strenuous for all. It was worth it... the very beginning of the right lower jaw was found broken off from the jaws and was jacketed separately. Quarrying continued around the lower jaws and by late afternoon a jacket nearly 3 feet long and 2 feet wide and weighing nearly 120 lbs. was lowered down the cliff.
After a few weeks I was allowed to prep the find for the CMM and kept them and the landowner appraised of my progress through emails and digital photos. A 14+ inch section of both lower jaws was in the jacket as well as nearly a 20+ inch section of the snout with at least one tooth still intact. In addition, 2 complete teeth in beautiful shape and a root and broken tip of another tooth were also found scattered about in sediment of the jacket. The next step will be to flip the jacket and expose the other side of the jaws. Hopefully more teeth will be found intact in the snout. Both lower jaws no longer hold any teeth. I'm anxiously looking forward to the next step when we plan to try to piece together the shattered pieces in an attempt to reconstruct the skull. It will have to be a team effort and I'm grateful that all involved have been gracious enough to offer their help and are as excited as me to have it put back together. Once done it will hopefully be placed on display at the CMM.
The only other point I'd like to note is that although the find was in zone 11 it was
just barely so. Most of the jacket contained material from the famous zone 10 and after
sifting the leftover matrix material it did not disappoint. Over 130 teeth were found,
most under 3mm in size!! Hopefully some useful analysis can be made from those finds as well.
Pictures of the Squalodon Excavation
Here are the paleo-repellers at the squalodon site. Notice how high up it is! I have no clue how Paul spotted this cliff colored beast way up there!!
A closer image of the vertical dig site. Here you can clearly see the paleo-repellers mooning us. I still can't see the squalodon to much.. Thankfully, the people from THE PHILADELPHIA ROCK GYM decided to help everyone out, and lend some equipment. The person on the right is David Rowland, from the rock gym.
Stephen is inspecting the squalodon bones. Notice how close to zone 10 it is.
Stephen is carefully digging around the squalodon whale fossils.
Stephen is almost ready to put the plaster jacket on the squalodon bones.
This image shows an extra piece of the Squalodon. No one is sure what part it is. I guess we'll have to wait until it is prepped to find out
This is an image of the two jackets that were removed from the squalodon site. Here they are lying safely in the CMM. The large jacket is around 2.5 ft. A fossilized beverage was also recovered from the squalodon site; perhaps it was the squalodon's food supply?
Pictures of the Squalodon Fossil Preparation
Pictures taken by Paul R. Murdoch Jr.
This shows the larger jacket in the beginning stages of preparation. Notice the tree roots growing around the squalodon fossil. Also, two teeth are visible in this image, one toward the center of the jacket, and one in the lower left portion of the jacket.
This is a closer view of part of the jacket. One of the squalodon teeth is easier to see in this image.
This shows the same angle, after the squalodon fossil has been prepped better, the matrix is also cleaned out of the tooth sockets.
This image shows part of the lower squalodon jaw with scrape marks in it. Was this an injury caused during life, or predation marks after it died?
This is a view looking toward the snout. Notice the snout significantly broadens toward the end. This is to reinforce the large teeth and "tusks" that protrude from the jaws.
This is a closeup of the broken tip of the squalodon snout.
Here are some teeth found during the preparation. The largest squalodon tooth is almost 3 1/8" (80 mm), the other is 2 3/4" (72 mm), and the partial tooth tip is 1 1/2" (39 mm).