Friday Fossil Feature – 2017 Aurora Fossil Fest!

By Sarah Boessenecker (@tetrameryx) and Robert Boessenecker (@CoastalPaleo)

Happy Fossil Friday!

Over Memorial Day weekend, museum paleontologists Bobby and Sarah Boessenecker traveled to the town of Aurora, North Carolina for the 24th annual Aurora Fossil Festival.  Aurora is tiny – roughly 500 people live in this small town right along the Pamlico River, and each year it grows to 15,000+ people for a weekend for the love of fossils and fossil-nuts alike!

The trip started with a special visit to Belgrade Quarry to hunt for fossils. Belgrade Quarry is an open-pit aggregate mine – aggregate is one of the raw materials (typically limestone) used for concrete and road metal.  The mine is owned by the Martin Marietta Corporation, and while closed to the public for collecting, they graciously allow the North Carolina Fossil Club and their friends in once a quarter for collecting, and for special events such as the Fossil Festival. The mine exposes rocks from several different units: the Eocene Castle Hayne Limestone, the Oligocene Belgrade/River Bend Formations, and the Pliocene Duplin Formation. Marine vertebrate fossils including sharks, rays, bony fish, estuarine crocodiles, sea turtles, dolphins, and whales are abundant within the Belgrade Formation. This is one of the only Oligocene cetacean-bearing fossil localities on the east coast outside the Charleston area; deposits of the same unit at Onslow Beach, NC, yielded the holotype skull of the xenorophid dolphin Albertocetus meffordorum. Friday morning started early, meeting at the Hardee’s of Maysville, NC at 7:30 am for a quick breakfast and discussion of what to expect in the quarry. We were required to have steel toed boots, safety vests, and hard hats as Belgrade Quarry is an active mining operation. We headed out to the quarry at 8:00 am and watched a short video on quarry safety and what to do in case of emergencies. As they were blasting overburden that morning, we stuck around the office until 9:00 am as per safety protocol, and then it was off for a day of fossil hunting!

(R to L) Jeanette Pirlo, Michelle Barboza-Ramirez, Victor Perez, and Bruce McFadden from the Florida Museum of Natural History preparing to enter the quarry. Photo by S. Boessenecker

Collecting from Belgrade Quarry is surface collecting, with stunning views. Photo by S. Boessenecker

If you look closely, you can see the quick and easy way to find your collections manager while fossil hunting. Photo by R. Boessenecker

Looking south towards the conveyor belts. Photo by R. Boessenecker

Not all life found in the quarry was fossil in nature! Photo by S. Boessenecker

Victor Perez screening for shark teeth. Photo by S. Boessenecker

Bobby Boessenecker prospecting. Photo by S. Boessenecker

We didn’t find quite so much as we had two weeks prior – and we think our earlier trip scoured the place fairly clean. We did find a small number of sand tiger shark teeth (Carcharias cuspidata), tiger shark teeth (Galeocerdo casei, Physogaleus contortus), a nurse shark (Ginglymostoma), and many ray teeth (cf. Myliobatis). Bobby may have found a sperm whale tooth – which is surprising given the rather old Oligocene age of the strata, as only one Oligocene sperm whale is known (Ferecetotherium, Oligocene of Kazakhstan). After a busy and filthy day collecting in the quarry, we drove about an hour back to Aurora for showers and wonderful BBQ food. It was a time to relax and catch up with friends and colleagues, as well as setting up our outreach table for Saturday.

We borrowed casts of Georgiacetus vogtlensis and Zygorhiza kochi from our displays, and made riker cases for fossils collected by Robert and Sarah Boessenecker from Folly beach. Photo by S. Boessenecker

Sarah Boessenecker ready to educate visitors! Photo by R. Boessenecker

The Aurora Fossil Museum houses fossils from the famous Lee Creek Mine and though the mine has been closed to the public since 2009, truckloads of material from the mine are regularly bought in and dumped into large ‘spoil piles’ outside of the museum for collectors to pick through.

1 of 2 spoils piles outside the Aurora Fossil Museum. Photo by S. Boessenecker

One truckload was brought in specifically for the fossil fest, and was roped off – until Friday at 6:00 pm. Visitors (and ourselves) simply could not resist the idea of fresh, untouched spoils from Lee Creek Mine – we spent some time in the pile before the keynote address, finding shark and cetacean teeth right off the bat. We picked up a bucket for the museum and will screen through the matrix this summer, and it will greatly supplement the McDaniel Collection here at CCNHM, which was made by Rita McDaniel, principally as surface collection – which tended to focus on larger specimens. This will give us a better snapshot of species represented by smaller teeth (rays, skates, basking sharks, horn sharks, megamouth sharks, etc.).

The spoils pile looked like an anthill, swarming with collectors shortly after the ropes were removed. Photo by R. Boessenecker

Sarah Boessenecker explaining the futility of the shower she’d just taken. Photo by R. Boessenecker

Jeanette Pirlo, Victor Perez, and Michelle Barboza-Ramirez on what we called “Black Friday for paleontologists.” Photo by R. Boessenecker

Donald Morgan from the Calvert County Marine Museum and Sarah Boessenecker digging through the pile. Shortly after this picture was taken, Donald was informed there was a shark tooth stuck to his leg. Photo by R. Boessenecker

Squalodon calvertensis (shark toothed dolphin) molar found by Robert Boessenecker. Photo by R. Boessenecker

Assorted shark teeth found by Sarah Boessenecker. Photo by S. Boessenecker

Carcharocles chubutensis tooth found in matrix by Sarah Boessenecker. Photo by S. Boessenecker

Eventually though, we had to turn away from digging to attend the keynote address given by Bruce McFadden, curator of the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, Florida. Bruce has spearheaded the Fossil Project, a group created to encourage the relationships between amateur and professional paleontologists. Bruce has an interest in the terrestrial mammals that can be found in the upper layers of the Belgrade Quarry, dating to about the Oligo-Miocene boundary. His talk expressed the importance these fossils have, and encouraged members of the fossil community to donate their finds so that the terrestrial mammal fauna could be studied and compared with better known assemblages from the Great Plains.

Bruce McFadden giving the Keynote Address. Photo by R. Boessenecker

Saturday morning began the festivities for us; we set up our table the night before and were in the Community Center at 9:00 am to man (and woman) our outreach table.  We were lucky to be in a building with air conditioning! Though it wasn’t nearly as warm as the previous year, we appreciated the cool air.  Our day was busy – it went by incredibly fast!  We got to interact with the public, IDing fossils for them and talking about CCNHM, as well as catching up with many of the members of the NCFC, and getting to see their impressive collections.  We were even lucky enough to snag several donations for our museum collections, which will in turn allow us to write a publication on the marine mammal fauna of Belgrade Quarry.

Where all the cool kids were (and yes, that’s Buck Ward with the goofy umbrella hat.) Photo by S. Boessenecker

Promoting our social media accounts to visitors to our table. Photo by S. Boessenecker

We also brought pictures showing our newest display, the Cone Whale, found in Lee Creek! Photo by S. Boessenecker

Digital scanning by the Fossil Project. Photo by S. Boessenecker

More of the Fossil Project table. Photo by S. Boessenecker

Michelle Barboza-Ramirez working at the Fossil Project table. Photo by S. Boessenecker

Julie Niederkorn with her display at the North Carolina Fossil Club table. Photo by R. Boessenecker

Asst. Curator of Paleontology at the VMNH Alex Hastings brought fossils of the dinosaur variety to the festival. Photo by R. Boessenecker

The Virginia Museum of Natural History had a busy day too! Photo by S. Boessenecker

Lee Cone with his impressive shark tooth collection. Photo by R. Boessenecker

Don Muller and Joel Hardin heading up the Special Friends of the Aurora Museum table. Photo by S. Boessenecker

More displays from the North Carolina Fossil Club. Photo by S. Boessenecker

Our table was busy all day – here, Dave Bohaska of the Smithsonian works with Bobby to ID fossils for visitors. Photo by S. Boessenecker

Dave Bohaska and Buck Ward are staples of the AFF, attending every year. Photo by R. Boessenecker

Buck is an invertebrate paleontologist, and had an impressive table showing the evolution of pectens through time. Photo by R. Boessenecker

A eurhinodelphinid (swordfish dolphin) collected by young collector Trevor Clarke. Photo by R. Boessenecker

Trevor with his find – one of the oldest eurhinodelphinids from the Calvert Formation! Photo by R. Boessenecker

Plenty of outreach designed for kids in mind! Photo by S. Boessenecker

More outreach for kids in mind. Photo by S. Boessenecker

Bobby identifying cetacean earbones, with Donald Morgan at his Calvert County Marine Museum in the background. Photo by S. Boessenecker

Donald Morgan with his Calvert County Marine Museum outreach table. Photo by S. Boessenecker

We also made certain to give the original watercolor of the mock-up for displaying the Cone Whale to Lee Cone, who graciously donated it to CCNHM. Thanks again, Lee! Photo by S. Boessenecker

Plenty was going on outside of the Community Center as well; there were vendors selling an assortment of items, and all the fried food the south could offer, not to mention the continuously busy spoils pile and live music. We took a break from our table to get some food and went through the education tent, and our collections manager Sarah was even able to (excitedly) hold a wood duck!

Never a dull moment in the spoils piles! Photo by S. Boessenecker

Sarah got a little excited to hold this little guy! Photo by R. Boessenecker

We ended the day with a walkthrough of the Aurora Fossil Museum, and catching up with Cindy Crane, the director of the museum, and all around wonder-woman who brings this giant festival together each year.  The museum houses an impressive number of shark displays, including modern and fossil (composite and associated) dentitions, numerous marine mammal fossils, and an entire room with a scale model of the Lee Creek Mine, where the layers are accurately depicted in color and thicknesses.  In this room, you can learn a bit about how the mine operates, what layers the fossils are found in, and why fossil remains are so abundant from the Lee Creek Mine.

Dave Bohaska of the Smithsonian and Cindi Crane, director of the AFF catch up after a long and busy day! Photo by R. Boessenecker

Carcharocles megalodon teeth. Photo by R. Boessenecker

Colors accurate and thickness of beds to scale. Photo by S. Boessenecker

Material (including the Cone Whale!) removed from the pit by draglines. Photo by S. Boessenecker

Depicting the fossil-bearing beds in the Lee Creek Mine. Photo by S. Boessenecker

No visit is complete without a picture in the shark jaws! Dave Bohaska, Cindi Crane, Sarah Boessenecker, and Bobby Boessenecker after an exhausting day!

We ended the night with a spectacular fireworks display, with the excitement of returning next year for the 25th annual Fossil Festival, and the 40th birthday of the Aurora Fossil Museum!

To break up the ~5.5 hour drive back to Charleston, we stopped at another fossil locality, Topsail Beach. At topsail beach you can find Oligocene and Eocene Fossils such as shark teeth, whale, dolphin, and sea cow bones and teeth, as well as echinoids (sea urchins and sea biscuits). Collecting at Topsail Beach is similar to collecting here at Folly Beach near Charleston, but with a higher chance of finding precious Oligocene marine mammal fossils. Marine mammals found at Folly tend to be younger (Miocene and Pliocene).

Topsail Beach. Photo by S. Boessenecker

Bobby collecting at Topsail Beach. Photo by S. Boessenecker

Sarah collecting at Topsail Beach. Photo by R. Boessenecker

 

Sarah after finding her first fossil sea biscuit! Photo by R. Boessenecker

 

All in all, it was a hugely successful and fun weekend, and we would like to thank Cindi and the Special Friends of the Aurora Fossil Museum for extending an invite to us, as well as the North Carolina Fossil Club for their continuous generosity in both donations and inclusion in their events. We will see you all next year, if not sooner!

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