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Fossil Identification Guide for Vertebrate Fossils of Aurora and Coastal North Carolina


Fossil Identification Guide for Vertebrate Fossils of Aurora and Coastal North Carolina

Fossil Vertebrate Identification Guide for Aurora and Coastal North Carlina - Pungo River and Yorktown Formations.

Besides the abundant shark fossils found in coastal North Carolina, other vertebrates are also found. The most common are marine mammals, such as ancient dolphins and whales. Other vertebrates include pinnipeds, reptiles, and ocean going birds.

Click on the type of vertebrate fossil or scroll down to browse:

Marine Mammals Cetaceans (Dolphins / Whales) and Pinnipeds (Seals / Sea Lions)

Non-Marine Mammals - Crocodiles and Birds

Predation Evidence

Cetacean Fossils - Dolphins / Whales

Cetaceans are Whale and Dolphin like animals. These are by far the most common vertebate fossils found at the cliffs besides sharks teeth. The Miocene seas hosted a vast diversity of cetacea, far greater than todays diversity. New ones are still being discovered at the Calvert Cliffs. Cetaceans are broken into two groups:

Odontocetes - Toothed Whales:
These include any whales with teeth, from small dolphins to the large Sperm Whale. Mysticetes - Baleen Whales:
These are the large filter feeding whales. They do not have teeth, but instead have wide jaws of Baleen that filters plankton out of the water. Some of the earliest Baleen whales come from the St. Marys Formation of the Calvert Cliffs.

Unfortunately, unless a complete skull or ear bones are found, it's incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to determine the genus or species of cetacean fossil found. Because of this, the fossil identifications below are grouped into types of fossils, not genera.

Extinct Toothed Whale skeleton on display at the Charleston Muesum, Charleston, SC.

Shark Toothed Whale

Squalodons are shark toothed whales. They are a medium sized toothed whale with a long snout full of serrated teeth.
Squalodons are less common than the more modern looking whales found in the Miocene deposits of North Carolina.
To learn more about squalodons, go to the squalodon page.

This tooth with a broken root is probably a molar. It comes from the Pungo River formation of Aurora, North Carolina.

This is another molar with a broken root. It comes from the Pungo River formation of Aurora, North Carolina.

This is a squalodon incisor. Unfortunately the tip and root are broken. It comes from the Pungo River formation of Aurora, North Carolina.

Squalodon Jaw fragment

This is a small jaw section from a Squalodon. Notice the large tooth socket. It comes from the Pungo River formation of Aurora, North Carolina.

Dolphin and Dolphin like animals

There are many different genus and species of dolphins in the Pungo River and Yorktown formations. Most of the time, the remains are fragmentary, such as isolated teeth and bones. Unless a skull is found, identification to even the genus level is very difficult, if not impossible.

This is a mangled skull of a small type of dolphin in a limestone cocuina from the Pungo River formation at the PCS mine in Aurora, North Carolina.

Dolphin teeth
Isolated teeth are a fairly common cetacean find in North Carolina.

Dolphin type teeth are a common cetacean find. However, they often get overlooked due to their small size. They range anywhere from around .5" to 1.5" in length. Identifying isolated teeth to a genus is nearly impossible.

Dolphin Jaw Fragment
Jaw fragments are sometimes found. Most are not identifiable to a genus level except for Eurhinodelphis.

Eurhinodelphis jaw sections have closely spaced tooth holes. The holes are small and the jaws are very long and narrow.
To learn more about Eurhinodelphis, view the Eurhinodelphis Gallery Page.

This is a fragment of the jaw of some type of dolphin like animal. Notice the very small tooth holes.

This is another fragment of the jaw of some type of dolphin.

Dolphin Ear Bones

The ear bones (the bulla and periotic) of dolphins are very dense and therefore are usually the best preserved bone elements of the skull. Well preserved ear bones can be used to identify the genus and even species of cetacean.

This bulla is small and probably from a dolphin like animal.

Periotics are easy to recognise due to their unique shape. Each species of toothed whale has a slightly different shaped Periotic.

Dolphin Flippers - Arm Bones

A cetaceans flipper has all the arm and hand components of any other mammal.

The image below is a digital composite reconstruction of a partial fossil dolphin arm using fossils found at Aurora, North Carolina.

Composite reconstruction of a partial fossil dolphin arm using fossils found at Aurora, North Carolina. The Scapula is from the Calvert Cliffs of Maryland.

Dolphin Humerus - Arm Bone
These are humeri from porpoises. The Humerus is the bone in the arm that connects the scapula (shoulder) to the ulna (forelimb),

From this bone, the Radius and Ulna attach, then the Carpals and Phalanges (fingers).
Identification based on Timmerman (1997, p. 66).

The small size and odd shape of this bone makes dolphin humerus bones easy to identification very easy. The Humerus is shaped slightly differently from species to species.

Dolphin Ulna - Arm Bone
The Ulna is in the forearm, and runs parallel to the Radius. The Ulna and Radius connect the Humerus to the carpals and phalanges (hand).

These are Ulna from dolphin like animals. The leftmost one is a profile view.
The shape of the Ulna varies depending on the species.

Dolphin Radius - Arm Bone
The Radius is in the forearm. It runs parallel to the Ulna. The Radius and Ulna connect the Humerus to the carpals and phalanges (hand).

These are Radii from various dolphins. The leftmost one is a profile view.
The shape of the Ulna varies depending on the species.

Dolphin Phalanges - Finger Bones
The phalanges are the finger bones. They tend to be very small and flattened.

Small whale phalanges and dolphin phalanges are impossible to tell apart without associated remains. Therefore, some of these could be small whale phalanges.

Due to their size, dolphin phalanges are often overlooked.

Dolphin Radius - Arm Bone
The Radius is in the forearm. It runs parallel to the Ulna. The Radius and Ulna connect the Humerus to the carpals and phalanges (hand).

Dolphin Vertebra

Dolphin Thoracic Vertebra

This is a thoracic vertebra from some kind of very small dolphin species.

Dolphin Caudial (tail) Vertebra

This is probably a dolphin Caudal, or tail, Vertebra from the front of the column. The processes are severely reduced in caudal vertebra.

Physeteridae Family
Sperm Whales

Sperm, Pygmy Sperm, and Dwarf Sperm Whales
One of the more common whale fossils found in North Carolina are sperm whale teeth. They come in many shapes and sizes.
For facts about Sperm Whales, go to the Sperm Whale Gallery.

Sperm whale teeth
The teeth of Sperm whales have a huge variation with respect to one another. Because of this, identifying them to a species is next to impossible without an associated skull.

These teeth are easy to identify. Their roots are hollow at the base, and when worn, show a pattern of enamel rings running up the tooth.

These are more sperm whale teeth to show the wide variation in shape and size.

Here is a much larger Sperm Whale tooth. Notice the shape variation from the ones above and below. As in most whale teeth, this one has feeding damage near the tip. This one is from the Yorktown formation in the PCS mine in Aurora, North Carolina.

This is another larger Sperm Whale tooth. It also has feeding damage near the tip, as most of the enamel has been sheared off.It is also from the Yorktown formation in the PCS mine in Aurora, North Carolina.

Baleen Whale Fossils

An Atlantic Right Whale, a Baleen Whale, skull. This skeleton is on display at the Charleston Museum in South Carolina.

Baleen whales, or filter feeding whales, were the largest type of whale in the Miocene and Pliocene formations in North Carolina. Usually only bone fragments and isolated large vertebra are found.

The Cone Whale on display at the Mace Brown Museum in Charleston- Found by Lee Cone in the PCS Phosphate mine in Aurora, North Carolina.

Tympanic Bulla (Ear Bone)

The ear bones (bulla and periotic) are very dense are usually the best preserved bone elements of the skull.

These are two whale bulla. The upper one is better preserved. They are from the Yorktown formation of the PCS mine in Aurora, North Carolina.

This fossil whale bulla has been entirely replaced by Phosphate.

Baleen Whale Arm Bones

Whale Phalanges (Finger Bones)
Phalalanges are finger digits. Cetacean finger digits have a very flattened shape.

Whale Carpals (Wrist Bones)
Carpals are the wrist bones that connect the radius and ulna to the phalanges (fingers).

This is a whale carpal. It is very thin, with a hexagon like shape. They kind of look like turtle scutes, but the bone texture & structure is completely different

Here are a series of composite finger digits

Whale Skull Elements

Whale bone fragments are common in the Pungo River and Yorktown sediments. Sometimes they are recognizable, as in the vertebra lower on this page and skull elements.

This is a fossil whale parietal, or a top back part of the whale skull.

Whale Vertebra

Whale vertebra are common in the Yorktown formation. They are easy to identify due to their large size and shape. Below are various vertebra from different parts of a whale spinal column. The processes are almost always broken off.

There are different types of vertebrae depending on the position in the animals back.

Cervical: Vertebrae
which form the head and neck veretebrae.
Thoracic: Vertebrae, or Rib Vertebrae, form the upper back.
Lumbar and Sacrum: vertebrae which form the lower back.
Caudal: vertebrae which form the tail.

The numbers of each type of vertebrae vary depending on the species of whale or dolphin. Some have only 41 verebrae, while others have 91 vertebrae!
Usually, at the Calvert Cliffs, vertebrae have most of the processes (bony protrusions) worn or broken off, so only the central disk is left.
Often the genus or species of cetacean cannot be determined from an isolated vertebra, usually only the vertebra position can be determined.

Baleen Whale Cervical Vertebrae

Cervical Vertebrae are the vertebrae that make up the neck. There are two special ones, the Atlas and the Axis which connect the skull. The others (C3-C7) are very thin. Many of these vertebrae are often found fused together.

These are virtual scans of two whale cervical vertebral columns, showing the atlas, axis, and other cervical vertebrae and how they all fit together.
This is from the "Whales of the World" scans from the Idaho Virtualization Laboratory at the IMNH. Image has been resized. Copyright: ( CC BY-NC 4.0).

Cetacean Cervical Vertebrae
Cervical Vertebrae C3 to C7

Cetacea and most other mammals, usually have 7 cervical vertebrae. After the Atlas (C1) and Axis (C2), the rest look very similar. In cetacea, they are highly compressed.

This is one of a whales Cervical Vertebra. Since the processes are missing, it is difficult to further narrow it down

Another Cervical Vertebra. This one has more of the processes still attached.

Thoracic Vertebrae

Cetacea have somewhere around 13 Thoracic vertebrae, depending on the species.
These are the vertebrae of the upper back and have the ribs loosly attached to them. The central disk is round and has process protruding from the upper sides of the vertebra. These processes branch into the transverse processes (where the ribs would attach) and a spinal process.

This is probably a lower Thoracic Vertebra from a whale. The processes are also mostly missing.

Lumbar and Sacral Vertebrae

Lumbar vertebrae are the vertebrae of the lower back. They go from past the ribs to the pelvis. The number of lumbar vertebrae vary among ceteaceans. Whales have around 10 - 12 of them.

Lumbar vertebrae have the transverse processes sticking out of the sides, while the spinal process is sticking out of the top of the vertebral disk.

This is probably one of a whales Lumbar Vertebra. Again, The processes are missing.

Caudal Vertebrae

Caudal vertebrae make up the tail of the cetacean. They are very small and the processes are either severely reduced, or missing.

This is one of a whales Caudual, or tail Vertebra. The processes are mostly missing.
Notice the two small processes on the bottom of the vertebra. These are only present on the Caudial Vertebra

Pinniped Fossils - Seals / Sea Lions

Sea Lions at the Galapagos

Although not nearly as common as shark teeth, seal material is sometimes found at Aurora. Although identification of a fragment to the genera level is near impossible,

A Sea Lion colony just outside of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

Seal Thoracic Vertebra

Seal vertebra look very different than Cetacea vertebra. The one imaged below is a seal thoracic vertebra.

Seal Tooth

Seal teeth are usually easy to identify. Although hard to find, seal molars have a distinctive shape.
This seal tooth was found by John F. and used with permission on this website.

Seal Femur

This is a seal femur. Notice the distinct difference between this and a porpoise radius and ulna.

Seal Phalange

This is a seal finger digit. Notice the distinct difference between this and a porpoise phalange.



Crocodile teeth are occasionally found in the Miocene and Pliocene formations of North Carolina.

This is the only nearly complete Crocodile tooth I have found. It is very worn. It came from the Pungo River reject pile in front of the Aurora Fossil Museum.

Sea Birds

Bird bones can be found in the sediments. However, since bird bones are hollow (to reduce weight for flight), they are very fragile and are usually found broken.

Alca sp.
Auk, ulna

Auks are a type of diving bird that resemble penguins.

Here is a complete ulna. These fossils are very light and fragile, as they are hollow. Birds have hollow bones to reduce their weight for flight.

This is a broken ulna of an Auk. It is difficult to determine the species since it is broken.

Notice the holow structure of the bone.

Predation Evidence

Many bones found at Aurora and other vertebrate sites often show evidence of predation. The bones either have puncture marks and/or scrape marks from teeth of the feeding animal. These predation marks were most likely caused from animals scavenging the dead carcas, however, some have been caused by the predator that hunted and killed the animal.

This whale rib fragment has numerous scrape marks caused by sharks. There are 5 on this side, and 2 on the other side. Some scrape marks show signs of serration marks from the shark teeth.

This is half of a whale bulla. On the top of the bulla, the left image, one can see numerous scrape marks most likely make by shark teeth.

This whale vertebra was apparently bitted in half. If one looks at the inside half of the vertebra (the lower left image), one can see a series of 2-4" long, and 1/8" deep scrape marks running almost vertically down the vertebra. These scrapes were probably caused by the teeth slicing the vertebra in half.
Such large scrape marks makes me beleive this was done by a megalodon.

Recommended Books for North Carolina Fossil Collecting:

Shark Tooth Hunting on the Carolina Coast

by Ashley Oliphant, 2015

This is a great field guide for locating and identifying fossil shark teeth on the beaches of North and South Carolina. It is filled with clear photographs and easy to read descriptions.
There's not too many books about North Carolina Sharks teeth. This one is pretty good!

Fossil Shark Teeth of the World

A great book for identifying all those teeth. This book is laid out "as simple as possible." It's ease of use and small size makes it great to carry during collecting trips. This book shows teeth from around the globe, but all the North Carolina teeth can be found in it.

About the Author

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