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Coastal South Carolina Fossil Hunting


Guide to Fossil Hunting

Coastal South Carolina

Your Fossil Hunting Guide

Formations: A wonderful mess of mixed and reworked formations!

Oligocene: Ashely and Chandler Bridge
Miocene: Goose Creek Limestone
Pleistocene: Wando, Waccamaw, and Other Unconsolidated Pleistocene Layers with reworked Pliocene and Miocene fossils

Remember to get your HOBBY LICENSE before fossil hunting in South Carolina waters.

A nearly 3 inch juvenile angustidens shark tooth found from the Oligocene Chandler Bridge formation near Charleston, SC.

A large 2 1/4 inch Great White Shark tooth found in a private creek.... and a brick! No need for a sifter! Note: shovels, scoops, rakes, screens, or any type of tool is not allowed in summerville. This picture was from private property (not in summerville) with the owners permission.

If you have an advanced open water scuba certification and can handle blackwater rivers, diving is the best way to find fossils in the Lowcountry.

Geology and Paleontology of Coastal South Carolina
Why are there fossils here?

The South Carolina Coastal plain roughly comprises of the land from I-95 eastward to the ocean. This area has been underwater for many millions of years, forming the Charleston Embayment.

Diagram of ancient embayments along the Eastern United States modified from Cicimurri and Knight, 2009. All of these embayments have fossil bearing sediments. Fossil locations include the Calvert Cliffs - Salisbury Embaymet, the mine at Aurora - Albemarle Embayment, the rivers and beaches in the Charleston area - Charleston Embayment, and the old phosphate spoil islands along the Savannah river and Tybee Island in Georgia - Southeast Georgia Embayment.

The Charleston Embayment has a rich 65-million-year history throughout the Cenozoic. This embayment was full of warm, nutrient rich waters, teaming with life. These nutrient rich waters also contained phosphate which greatly aids in the fossilization process. As a result, when sediments built up over millions of years, so did a record of the diverse life living there.

These sediments from different time periods are layered into formations, like pancakes, right on top of one another. Modern rivers and harbors cut through these formations, eroding out numerous fossils, making the South Carolina Coastal plain one of the best places to find fossils, including fossil shark teeth.

Below is a rundown of some of the more famous formations that contain fossils.


Harleyville formation: Starting further inland, near I-95 are a few Eocene formations. One of the more famous ones, called the Harleyville formation (near Harleyville) contains the remains of Eocene giants, such as teeth form the predecessor to the megalodon shark, Otodus Auriculatus, and early whales, such as Basilosaurus. The Eocene deposits don't quite make it to the coast.


Ashley and Chandler Bridge Formations: Around the area of Summerville are two of the more famous formations in South Carolina, the Late Oligocene Ashely and Chandler Bridge formations. These formations were extensively mined for phosphate during the 1800's, and today provide a glimpse into life of the Late Oligocene embayment. The Ashley is famous for its early whales and also the predecessor to the megalodon shark, O. angustidens. The Chandler Bridge also contains a wide array of early Cetacea (whales and dolphins), but also the embayment at this time served as a nursing ground for the shark O. angustidens, whose teeth are plentiful in this formation.


Edisto, Rudd Branch Beds, and Marks Head Formations: Along the coast are a few Miocene aged formations. These formations are poorly studied. The Marks Head Formation which is completely underground and not accessible in the Charleston area, but pops up in northern Georgia. Miocene fossils found in the charleston area are most likely reworked. A reworked fossil is one that has eroded out of its original formation and has since been redeposited into a younger formation.


Now it gets confusing: The Charleston area contains numerous thin Pliocene and Pleistocene aged formations. Some of these are simply unconsolidated sandy deposits that sit on top of other formations, and some are only present offshore. Because the rivers in the area wash out fossils from their original formations, these loose fossils often pile up in lag deposits. Sometimes these fossil deposits get re-buried, or re-worked into younger formations. As a result, many of these younger Plio-Pleistocene formations contain a mix of fossils from many different time periods. Here is an overview of a few of the more well-known formations:

Goose Creek Limestone: The Goose Creek limestone is a Pliocene deposit that contains numerous shark teeth, including the famous C. megalodon.

Waccamaw formation: This is a Late Pliocene to Early Pleistocene fossil rich formation. Fossil include reworked sharks, whales, and also Ice Age land mammals.

Wando Formation : This is a Late Pleistocene deposit, and is arguably the richest Pleistocene fossil bed in the area. It contains numerous fossil vertebrates such as ground sloths, bears, mastodons, and tapirs. Many Ice Aged land mammal fossils come from this formation. It also contains reworked fossils from older formations.

Ten Mile Hill Beds: These beds are also Pleistocene in age and contain numerous Ice Aged land mammals. The Charleston Museum has specimens of Gomphothere and Glyptodonts from this formation, which are usually more common in Florida, such as the Peace River.

Edisto Beach Deposit: This is another Pleistocene aged set of deposits (that include reworked fossils) which are just offshore of Edisto Island. It is thought the fossils found at Edisto Beach come from these deposits. These deposits are from the Wisonsinan glaciation around 75,000 to 11,000 years ago (Dobie, and Jackson, 1979).

Stratiographic chart showing the various formations in Coastal South Carolina. Modified from the chart from the Edwards et al., 2000 USGS report.

Robert Boessenecker has a great article about the Ashley phosphate beds and the coastal paleontology of this area on his blog that goes into much more detail than what is presented here.

Also, to view the many local fossils, including incredible Oligocene whales, a visit to the Mace Brown Museum in downtown Charleston is a must! (Currently closed due to COVID)

Hobby License for Fossil and Artifact Collecting and Rules

Many years ago there was a construction boom in the Summerville area. With the construction came many exposed sites of fossil bearing formations. It was a field day for Amateurs and Paleontologists alike. However, today, the construction boom is over and there are buildings and parking lots on top of many of the old fossil sites. Today there are also many ordinances and laws that govern the collection of fossils.

A license is required BEFORE collecting any fossils in public waterways. Public waterways include anything below the low tide mark in rivers and the ocean, and in navigable or past navigable creeks and canals. The fossil hunting must also be for recreational and non-commercial purposes. Although the vast majority of river finds are of little scientific value, the Hobby License is a way for the state to better manage their resources and keep track of the type and numbers of fossils and artifacts being found.

The Hobby License application, renewal, quarterly reporting system, and additional information from the University of South Carolina is here: HOBBY LICENSE.

In addition there are also local rules and ordinances that need adhered to. For example, bringing any tool into a creek, canal, or drainage ditch Summerville, even a screw driver, will get you a hefty fine.

Where and How to Look for Fossils

From diving to beach collecting, from Myrtle Beach South Carolina to Tybee Island Georgia, from a tour group to going out yourself, there are lots of ways and places to fossil hunt in the Lowcountry.

Beach Locations

Near the mouth of a tidal creek draining into the ocean. Often fossils will wash out of these creeks and rivers onto the beaches.

There are lots of beaches where fossils wash up. Usually the fossils are small (under 2 inches), but occasionally larger ones wash up, especially after storms. Just remember, you must collect above the low tide mark unless you have a Hobby License.

General Tips for Beach Fossil Hunting:

Timing: It's best to fossil hunt at low tide, more fossils will be exposed. Morning low tides are the best, as there are less people. Fall and winter are also great times to fossil collect, as summer draws large crowds. Finally, after a storm is a good time to collect, the seafloor gets churned up, and larger fossils will often wash up.

How To: Fossil hunting at beaches is fairly simply. SLOWLY walk the beach near the water line and look for anything black. Fossils are often very dark in color and contrast from sand and other shells. You will not find a shark tooth in 10 minutes of searching, keep walking and keep searching for a few hours. It takes time, patience, and a bit of luck! Usually at the beaches, most fossils are no more than 1 inch in size, but occasionally larger specimens are found.

Fossil Identification: When you find fossils, how can you identify them? Go to my Coastal South Carolina Fossil ID page for all your ID needs.

1. Edisto Island
Building restrictions keep this island form being overdeveloped like many of the other sea islands in the area. Edisto Island sits at the mouth of the Edisto River and fossils from upstream wash down and get deposited along the beaches at the South Edisto Inlet. Also, Ice Age deposits are just offshore. Called the Edisto Beach deposits, these deposits from the Wisconsinan glaciation contain the remains of ice age mammals, making Edisto Island a great place to fossil collect.

The best place to fossil hunt on the island is along the beach at the South Edisto Inlet.

2. Folly Beach and Morris Island
One of the most famous fossil rivers on earth, the Cooper River, empties into the Charleston Harbor. Fossils wash down this river and wash up on the beaches around the harbor. Folly Beach is a well-known beach for fossil shark teeth. People have had luck near the south end, by the pier and also the north end, so take your pick!

If you have a kayak, you can launch it at the lighthouse inlet and paddle across to Morris Island. This island has less people on it, so it is usually less picked over. If you don't have a kayak, there are fossil kayak and boat tours that can take you to the island.

Tour Operator:
Charleston Fossil Adventures. This outfitter offers various tours that can take you all over the Charleston area for fossils, including Morris Island. Note: I have no affiliation with this company.

3. Tybee Island, Georgia
Although not in South Carolina, Tybee Island straddles its border. The beauty of this island is the Savannah river, another blackwater river that contains fossils. The Savannah River serves as a shipping lane and needs dredged periodically. The dredge material is placed on numerous artificial "dredge" islands near the mouth of the Savannah. This dredge material contains fossils from the river bottom.

There are a few ways to collect these fossils. You can search for them washing up on Tybee Island itself. Just search the beach at the north end of the island at low tide, and look for anything black, they could be shark teeth! Another way is to boat to the dredge islands themselves. If you don't have a boat or kayak, there are a few tour operators that will take you there. Here are two:

1. Sundial Charters
2. Tybee Island Charters

Both charters take you on a guided fossil tour of the dredge islands. Note: I have no affiliation with these tour operators.

4. Myrtle Beach
Although not as abundant, fossil shark teeth wash up on Myrtle Beach. People have had more luck at central Myrtle Beach and also up at North Myrtle beach. Here, the formation is offshore, so you just want to walk along the tide line looking for black objects. The fossil shark teeth also tend to wash around with the shells, so look for areas with lots of shell fragments. Although most fossil teeth are an inch in size or less, I get messages all the time about 2-inch great whites being found.

Diving the Blackwater Rivers

This is Ted of at the bottom of the Cooper River looking under a tree for fossils. Visibility was remarkably good during this particular dive. Notice the helmet and powerful dive lights.

This is my favorite way to fossil hunt in the Lowcountry because it's a little bit dangerous, a little bit crazy, and you find larger fossils. Just remember, you MUST have a Hobby License to dive the blackwater rivers.

The blackwater rivers throughout the Lowcountry and down into Georgia cut through numerous fossil bearing formations. Fossils wash out of these formations and pile up in gravel beds on the river bottoms. This is where larger fossils are usually found.

Blackwater diving is not for everyone though. As the name suggests, the rivers are full of dark tannins. At around 10 feet of depth, sunlight gets completely blocked, making the river pitch black. At nearly Zero visibility, powerful dive lights are required to see a few inches in front of you.

The rivers are also tidal, and often have strong currents. These currents tumble debris along the river bottom, including trees, so a helmet is necessary. The numerous trees also catch and tangle dive gear rather easily. I would only suggest trying your hand at blackwater diving if you are VERY comfortable with diving, can use a compass, have lights and a helmet.

If you are interested to see what blackwater diving for fossils is like, check out the video below from one of my dive trips:

What's it like to dive the cooper? Watch this YouTube video!

Video showing what it's like to dive for fossil shark teeth in the Cooper River.

If you don't have a boat to scout and explore the rivers, you can always use a charter. Here are some charters that cater to fossil divers:

1. Dive the Cooper: Mark Johnson of Dive the Cooper has a nice Pontoon boat for the sole purpose of fossil diving in the Cooper River. I have chartered with him a few times, and it's always a great experience.

2. Cooper River Dive Charters: I have not personally used this charter, however I have had my tanks filled by John and his cute dog! I've also heard good reviews of his charters.

Identification of Coastal South Carolina Fossils:

Click on the image to go to the Coastal South Carolina Identification Page:

Coastal South Carolina Fossil Identification Guide

Recommended Books for Coastal South Carolina

Fossil Diving Identification Guide
By: Daniel Berg, 2009

This is the Blackwater Fossil Diving Identification Guide. It is packed with images and information. If you are interested in blackwater diving, this is a must read.

Shark Tooth Hunting on the Carolina Coast
By: Ashley Oliphant, 2015
A guide on how to find and identify fossil shark teeth on the North and South Carolina beaches. It also has an easy to use section for shark teeth identification. If you want to find shark teeth in the Carolinas, read this book first!

Get Your Very Own Megalodon Tooth:

These are Authentic Megalodon teeth sold by Fossil Era , a reputable fossil dealer (that I personally know) who turned his fossil passion into a business. His Megalodon teeth come in all sizes and prices, from small and inexpensive to large muesum quality teeth. Each tooth has a detailed descriptions and images that include its collecting location and formation. If you are looking for a megalodon tooth, browse through these selections!

Additional Photos / Images of Coastal South Carolina Fossils

References / Works Cited

David J. Cicimurri, James L. Knight (2009) Late Oligocene Sharks and Rays from the Chandler Bridge Formation, Dorchester County, South Carolina, USA. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, 54(4), 627-647, (1 December 2009) (PDF here).

Dobie, J., & Jackson, D. (1979). First Fossil Record for the Diamondback Terrapin, Malaclemys terrapin (Emydidae), and Comments on the Fossil Record of Chrysemys nelsoni (Emydidae). Herpetologica, 35(2), 139-145. Retrieved

Lucy E. Edwards, Gregory S. Gohn, Laurel M. Bybell, Peter G. Chirico, Raymond A. Christopher, Norman O. Frederiksen, David C. Prowell, Jean M. Self-Trail, and Robert E. Weems . (2000) SUPPLEMENT TO THE PRELIMINARY STRATIGRAPHIC DATABASE FOR SUBSURFACE SEDIMENTS OF DORCHESTER COUNTY, SOUTH CAROLINA. U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 00-049-B
Online Publication

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