It’s a Saturday afternoon at Durham’s Museum of Life and Science, and the lobby is brimming with families, strollers and toddlers in tow. Cynthia Crane, the executive director of Aurora Fossil Museum in Aurora, North Carolina, had invited me, but it was clear a private invitation wasn’t needed.
Hundreds of fossilized teeth, shells, and bones in a variety of sizes and shapes are arranged across tables in one of the large conference rooms, in shades ranging from ashen gray to ebony black. Some include photographs of the proud moment of discovery or a colorfully illustrated guess at what the living creature might have looked like.
The Fossil Fair is a chance for members of the North Carolina Fossil Club to show off the fruits of their paleo passion projects and answer questions for curious attendees. Children bounce between the displays, poking at the treasures. With 2,500 attendees, it’s one of the club’s biggest public outreach events. But however wonderful the finds on display, they likely pale in comparison to what these dedicated hobbyists have donated or kept at home, far from the prodding fingers of young dinosaur enthusiasts.
I marveled at a whale vertebra, a hunk of bone that was still only a small segment of a colossal creature that lived in this state eons ago. Noticing my interest, the woman sitting next to the museum’s table confessed it was her favorite as well. Cheyenne Kimberlin, 25, is a Fossil Club member currently getting her degree in biology at Lenoir-Rhyne University while working as a presenter at the Catawba Science Center.
She’s been a Fossil Club member for just over a year, but her passion for paleontology started long before: “I’ve probably been interested since I was about 5, I went to Disneyland as a kid and got a caricature made of as a paleontologist.”
We exchanged notes on our favorite works of dinosaur nonfiction (hers: How to Build a Dinosaur, by Jack Horner) and she encouraged me to visit Greens Mill Run, in Pitt County. “It’s one of my favorite spots right now because while it does have megalodon teeth and great whites, it also has cretaceous fossils like mosasaur teeth, drumfish teeth, and my personal favorite, crow shark teeth,” she said, her enthusiasm apparent. “You don’t usually find something big, but I think it’s just amazing that you find fossils from fish that were around when the dinosaurs were.”
About 20 million years ago, the Atlantic Ocean completely covered that part of North Carolina, and giant sharks like the megalodon patrolled the shallow waters. Now their teeth are frequent finds as the ancient rock erodes—so many that they were named the state fossil in 2013.
Kimberlin was helping the Fossil Club’s outreach coordinator, Darryl Grater, answer questions about his personal collection of the specimen. Both said they got their start as fossil hunters via online forums, where they learned best digging practices, which places in the state have the best fossils, and how to identify their finds.
I asked Grater if he had donated any of his finds to local museums or universities. He shook his head. “I don’t think I’ve found anything worth donating, and even if I did, I doubt anyone would see it.”
“It happens a lot,” Kimberline chimed in. “Things get donated and then they just sit in a box and collect dust in some back room. There’s just such a backlog that they get lost.”
This struck me as a shame because hobbyists like Grater and Kimberlin have a lot to offer to paleontology in North Carolina. Events like these offer them a surefire way for their finds to see the light of day. “Coming here, showing off my stuff, I see it as paying it forward to the next person who’s thinking about starting but needs some inspiration,” said Grater.
They’re in the right place. North Carolina is a paleontological powerhouse. When the Permian-Triassic extinction event, also known as the Great Dying, hit roughly 252 million years ago, it left behind a particularly rich deposit here. We may not have the immense canyons and towering plateaus of the western United States, but the state’s unique geological features have created opportunities for research and discovery.
That’s part of the allure for fossil hunters young and old, amateur and professional—the chance to uncover something much older and bigger than yourself.
Ebenezer Emmons put North Carolina on the fossil map in 1857, when he stumbled upon a jawbone from the Triassic in Lee County’s Egypt coal mine during a state-wide geological survey.
Emmons was a geologist, educator, and physician who had been a professor of natural science at Williams College and co-led the New York geological survey when it began in 1836. He became chief of the North Carolina Geological Survey in 1852 after the legislature revived a defunct program.
The Egypt mine, which operated between 1856 and 1929, has a history fraught with fatalities. It closed several times due to flooding, and two explosions killed more than 60 miners. It’s a miracle Emmons got any fossil material out of it unscathed.
Deep in this claustrophobic deathtrap, Emmons found the remains of the first—and so far only—specimen of the proto-mammal Dromatherium sylvestre. The bone still had all the teeth in place, each shaped like a three-pronged mountain range. This cat-sized, squirrel-like early marsupial likely scurried on all fours, weaving between the footsteps of the much larger dinosaurs during the Triassic.
Emmons, performing much of the field, office, and lab work himself, went on to publish lengthy tomes detailing the soils, fertilizers, and fossils found in the marls of the eastern counties.
But when the Civil War broke out soon after, the mine became important for the Confederate war effort. “The Civil War shattered Emmons’s life and much of his work,” states a biography from UNC Press. “Loyal to the Union, he was caught in the South. Anxiety and separation from friends probably fostered the ill health that eventually confined him to his home in Brunswick County, where he died in 1863.”
A man named Washington Caruthers Kerr succeeded him, the first native North Carolinian paleontologist to be chief of the N.C. Geological Survey. Kerr, a Guilford County native, “collected the first fossils that stayed in the state,” said Dr. Christian Kammerer, curator at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. While Emmons’ sent his discoveries north, Kerr’s finds formed the core of the collections in the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, which opened in Raleigh in 1879.
Brothers Herbert Hutchinson Brimley and Clement Samuel Brimley, a pair of English immigrants convinced that North Carolina’s natural history was their destiny, spent 60 years working tirelessly to grow the museum through public engagement and creative exhibits. They also grew a comprehensive collection, including a small but significant collection of invertebrates, like mollusks and crustaceans, and their trace fossils—rock evidence of nests, burrows, footprints, poop.
Today, the museum collection has grown to 63,000 vertebrate and 56,000 invertebrate specimens, of which at least 80 percent were found in North Carolina.
Historian Paul Brinkman, head of the environmental humanities research lab and curator of special collections at the museum, explained that many of the Triassic vertebrates have been found in the most pedestrian of places: brick quarries. “These companies are mining Triassic clay and then baking bricks out of it,” said Brinkman. “The brick in Raleigh or Durham is all made out of Triassic mudstone, all of which is fossiliferous.”
But the museum’s primary source is tips and donations from “amateur” fossil collectors—usually members of the North Carolina Fossil Club, who have been responsible for the state’s most exceptional finds. An eclectic group of amateurs and professionals founded the Fossil Club in 1977 “to engage in and support the study, enjoyment, and collection of fossils.” About 70 members regularly attend their meetings in the basement of the Museum of Natural Sciences.
Among their finds is a nearly complete skeleton of a giant ground sloth from the Ice Age that an amateur hunter found in Wilmington in 1991. Mike Young was looking for a place to skateboard around where the Burnt Mill drainage pond was being built off Randall Parkway when he stumbled onto some shark teeth and sand dollars. He found many more, and soon local geologists joined the search, turning up a thigh bone, foot bones, three large claws, vertebrae, ribs, and teeth that were later confirmed to be Eremotherium eomigrans.
In February 2014, a club trip Ruffin Tucker led to Jacob’s Creek in Rockingham County turned up rare finds from the Ediacaran, a period between 635 and 539 million years ago that produced some of the earliest known evidence of the evolution of multicellular animals. North Carolina is one of only 10 places in the world that has recorded evidence dating back that far, and Tucker has found more fossils from the period than anyone else in North Carolina’s history, amateur or pro.
There’s a running joke among fossil hunters that the most likely place to find Ediacaran fossils in North Carolina is the trunk of Tucker’s car. He once discovered a roughly 200-pound slab of fossils while attending a wedding in Oakboro, North Carolina in 2013—and, wearing a light-blue tuxedo, loaded it into the trunk of his car with the help of two others.
Tucker learned to distinguish imprints of the tubes and stalks of these soft, bulbous creatures in the rock through his own research. “I’m an economist by training, but biology always fascinated me,” he said. “I found every book that I could get my hands on, then I got my hands dirty.”
He learned to identify impressions of the fronds that waved with the currents or the burrows of early worms in the rock and proudly taught his son everything he knew. Now he’s teaching yet another generation.
“I’ve been taking my grandson out with us on some digs, hoping to get him interested,” he said gleefully. “And I think he’s already hooked.”
From Amateur to Pro
Cynthia Crane started as a member of the Fossil Club in 1999, after moving down to North Carolina to get a fresh start in life. “I found my people while out picking up fossils along Onslow Beach,” she said.
The granddaughter of mine engineers, the daughter of outdoor educators, and with a bachelor’s and master’s from East Carolina University’s geology program, the N.C. Fossil Club is what brought all the threads of Crane’s life together.
She worked as a research assistant while attending ECU, and served as the president of the N.C. Fossil Club from 2003 until 2006. After working as a geologist for the N.C. Geological Survey, she became director of the Aurora Fossil Museum eight years ago. She describes all the responsibilities of running the museum with a tired but loving smile, as if describing the hardships of raising a child.
The museum was founded in 1976, the culmination of efforts from the town of Aurora, the nearby phosphate mine, the Smithsonian Institution, and East Carolina University funneled into a two-room building. Its unassuming brick facade on Aurora’s Main Street contains some of the state’s best marine specimens. Hundreds of shark jaws, razor sharp teeth still in place, line the walls and display cases, alongside hand-painted murals depicting members of ancient N.C. marine ecosystems.
In 2008, an anonymous donor gave the museum one of its prized specimens: 25 vertebrae and the nearly complete rib cage of a baleen whale, estimated to have been between 35 and 40 feet long.
Since Crane was herself an amateur fossil collector, academics in the field will often seek her advice on how to engage other amateurs. It’s not particularly hard, she tells them: “Have you called them? Take them to lunch at the McDonald’s maybe?” This mutual reluctance to be the first to reach out is pervasive, and in the resulting silence, assumptions are made. Some amateurs feel that their finds are not respected by the professionals, who often just lack the time to properly appraise the material. In turn, some professionals feel that the scientific implications of their work is not properly respected by the amateurs, who would probably love to understand the science if given the training.
Linda McCall is another person looking to bring amateurs and professionals closer together. She’s the vice president and field trip coordinator of the N.C. Fossil Club, as well as a research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of several paleontological societies.
She has quite a long list of fossil finds and publications, but in each makes sure to highlight the significant contributions of avocational paleontologists.
In 1985, she published her first paper as a co-author—about helping describe a new species of fossil echinoderm found on a field trip with the Austin Fossil Club. Among her more recent finds are specimens with remarkably well-preserved color and patterning found at her favorite fossil-hunting location: North Topsail Beach.
“30-million-year-old fossils shouldn’t still have any color or color patterns on them, so I wasn’t looking for it,” she said. “But, being a super collector, when you’ve picked up a bazillion of them, you can’t help but notice when there are replicating color patterns on them. So then I started looking for it, and the more I looked, the more I found!”
In McCall’s academic and institutional presentations, she emphasizes that amateur paleontologists have the freedom to visit dig sites more often and without the pressure of funding or satisfying grants. Professionals, she said, “are always short on labor, always short on funds, short on time.”
McCall is often frustrated that the hobbyists are not treated as a valuable resource. “You could get a million people to come out and dig for you, and just let the club people keep the junk you don’t want,” she said.
Professionals fear letting laypeople keep vertebrate fossils sends the wrong signals, McCall explains. They’ve seen the explosion of people on eBay and other sites, who are out to find fossils just to sell them, with no interest in the underlying science. These for-profit fossils give amateurs, even those who want to contribute to scientific research, a bad name.
But David Bohaska, a paleobiologist and collections specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, agrees that amateurs have a lot to offer. Bohaska is originally from Maryland, but has been a member of the N.C. Fossil Club almost since its foundation.
“The way I see it, it’s going to be the person that’s there every week that will find the things of scientific merit,” he said. “The best place to look is the basement of the amateur fossil collector.”
All agree that harnessing the potential of these passionate bone hunters is key to the future of North Carolina paleontology.
“This is why I came to North Carolina,” Kammerer told me. “It’s my deepest hope that we will continue to find more unique specimens here.”
Crane is optimistic, too: “I’m hopeful that in the future North Carolina can be a model on how the two entities can work together for the betterment of paleontology.”
Correction: The spelling of the name of one species and the Latin name of another have been corrected in this story.
Jameson Blount is a second-year doctoral student in Duke University’s Computational Biology and Bioinformatics program, but he’s hoping to break into science writing, too.