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!
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.
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.
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.).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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!