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A Novice Geologist

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Logos, Pathos, and Ethos as Learned by a Novice Fossil Hunter








Toby (my 10yo son) and I at the site for a group #BlackFriday #Fossil hunt #optoutside #outddoorresearch, Nov 25, 2016

There's a particular creek/ditch site my son and I like to frequent. It's not the easiest site and not always as productive as we'd like, but it's a good site nonetheless. I've been studying the stratigraphy to better



understand what could be there as I get to know the species of the fossils we find. We have found a number of things from micro shark teeth like tigers, to bigger items like rib bones and other bone frags, various


Partial whale/dolphin skull

vertebrae from sharks and fish, marine mammal teeth and bones, and more. I've even consulted one of the paleontologists at the College of Charleston, where I'm studying to become a geologist. It appears to be Chandler Bridge and I'm looking into what is underneath it (what we walk on in the creek). It's super hard and I was told by more seasoned hunters yesterday it's likely either marl or limestone. This would be consistent with our finds and with the idea of a marine/estuarine environment. It would be interesting if the marl/limestone underneath is Ashley formation, though. That would mean we are a bit older in the timeline than thought. Chandler Bridge is late Oligocene (~23-24 mya) and Ashley is early Oligocene (~26.5-30 mya). The top section of the site has a lot of artificial fill, however, so there is no telling where it comes from. After storms I have found a huge mako and huge Angustidens tangled in the roots only a foot or two from the surface so it had to be artificial fill.


Odontoceti tooth


Rib bone


However, lately when we go we've seen something pretty horrible going on.


Normally, the fossil hunters we encounter are good, honest folks. They are hunting for personal collections or to make some money and are pretty good about taking care of the sites they hunt at. After all, if we do not take care of these sites, they will be destroyed and stop producing fossils. There's the logos of the matter, right? There is also the logic that if we destroy sites, that are public lands, those that administer and care for them can shut us out, much like the town of Summerville was compelled to do. It is my understanding that some fossil hunters were so - um, "enthusiastic", shall we say - about their hunts, that they were digging into banks (which I usually refer as creek and ditch walls as many are very steep and deep) that they were breaching private property lines and risking other people's properties. So basically, just take care of the sites and they will take care of you. Makes sense, right?


Well, guess what, folks - it's happening here.



One of the several dig outs I found




Looking for micros despite the fall

When I first went to this site in about Aug/Sept of 2015, I had spied it on Google maps as a new fossil hunter (and am still quite the novice). Another experienced hunter told me it had promise but was a site he didn't like to go to for various reasons. I decided to give it a go. I went alone as I tend to do when checking out a new place I'm unfamiliar with. I'd rather not have my child with me in such a scenario. When I arrived, I walked to the edge of the creek bank and my use of the word "wall" couldn't be more appropriate. It was a nearly 90 degree vertical 15-20 foot wall to the bottom. I found a spot with what I thought to be some decent hand and foot holds and started my climb down. However, when I put my full weight on the foot holds, the wall gave out and fell straight to the bottom. I was pretty scraped up from the thorny flora overgrown on the wall but didn't break any bones, so I went ahead and did my little fossil hunt for a couple of hours only coming up with some micro shark teeth. I would later learn that I had a blown disc in my neck. See, I already had one fusion in my neck about four years prior to this and apparently a disc below that fusion had herniated. I suspect, though admit it is only conjecture, that this fall caused the disc to give out because I began to have symptoms just after this fall. While conducting my hunt on this particular trip out, I saw that people had been digging into the bottom of the wall and wondered if I had been climbing above such a spot, which caused it to give out when I tried to climb on it.


It was some time before I returned to that site, in part due to the fact that I was diagnosed with that blown disc and required surgery in December 2015 to fuse more vertebrae. It was disheartening. I can only have one more fusion and I'm only 39 years old. It's depressing to think about. Therein lies my pathos. Many people have other various emotions tied to fossil hunting and how to go about it. I've found it to be a very charged subject, for sure.



Black Friday 2015 there was a group hunt. I was going to join them, however I had just received that diagnosis of a blown disc and didn't want to risk further injury. I gave the organizer of that hunt the location and warned about the difficulty I had getting to it. I had also let him know that there was a massive wash out in one part because of the "Thousand Year" flooding in October 2015 (I may write another blog on why that phrase was massively misused). Apparently, there were some really cool finds, or a really cool find there, so after my recovery, I went back. I went with my son and it was overall uneventful - no falls thankfully.





Angustidens teeth I found that day

I did find a nice Angy (and a second at another site) but then we only found a couple of micros. We met and conversed with a seasoned hunter that IIRC was there with a group he brought on a hunt tour. There was a lot of digging but nothing that seemed very destructive and certainly nothing that was undermining the slopes that would cause them to fail. We chatted and I learned a few things. It's always nice to talk to people that have been doing this for so long.


Angustidens teeth I found that day


Later, in I believe April 2016, I took a friend of mine on his first fossil hunt and he killed it! The Odontoceti tooth and the rib bone above were among some of what he found there that day. The water level was low compared to the previous times I had been there and he's pretty adventurous, so we went places at that site I had never been before. We also found a spot to climb out of and now, Toby and I use it to get into the creek. It's not steep at all and it's not as deep there either.


Well, I've only been twice since I started at CofC in August and that has been this month, November 2016. We've had some great finds, especially since the water is really, really low (we've had nearly no rain at all since Hurricane Matthew hit in October). However, the practices that are being used by one or more people at this site recently leave utter destruction. I'm not exaggerating when I say that either. It was so bad when we went yesterday for the group Black Friday Hunt that the creek was almost blocked off as both banks had been horribly undercut and the rubble nearly met in the middle of the creek.


This isn't a natural erosion process. This is clearly the work of a human or humans; you can clearly see the shovel marks in the bank. This is far worse than even the dig outs that I witnessed when I first was here that caused me to fall and blow a herniated disc last summer!



What may be another real kick in the pants is that this undercutting is not well understood by me as they are not sifting what they are leaving behind. We have even pulled micro tiger shark teeth out of the huge chunks of rubble they left behind. It's confusing and I don't understand it. I can only assume they are looking for very large teeth. The biggest I've found are 2-2.5 inch Angustidens. There are no megalodons that I've ever seen and Angies and Megs are not in the same time period. Angies lived in the Oligocene (appropriate for Chandler Bridge and Ashley formations) and megalodon lived during the Pliocene and Miocene Epochs. As far as I know, they did not overlap so there shouldn't be any megs here, especially if this is closer to the Ashley formation than I thought.


This undercutting is extremely destructive and dangerous! It will cause these slopes to fall and the banks will wash out again after we have heavy rains. Maybe that is what the person/people doing this hope to achieve? However there is a massive flaw in that thought process. Several, actually. 20161125_114645.jpg


First off, it will cause other fossils to be lost. I get it, people want the big boys. They want 2-3 inch Angies, they want big whale teeth, they want full skulls - but by doing this, when it rains, when this slope fails and collapses, all the other fossils will be washed away, the likelihood of finding any "big boys" will still be slim, more sediment will be in the creek covering the fossils that are settling and being deposited by the water in the bottom of the creek (where we have found our great finds, by the way), and you are destroying the area.


This may very well get tools and digging banned everywhere we hunt. Then what? What will you do then?  I hope you are reading this. I hope you are hearing what I am trying to say. I get you probably don't care for the environment as much as others but I hope you hear your bottom line shrinking. As the people that live there start to see this, they may very well go to their city and county councils and follow Summerville's model. Or they may go with what other area's outside the Lowcountry have done and ban hunting altogether.  And that is sad. There are not enough paleontologists here to find all that needs to be found. Whether they are in people's personal collections, up for sale, or being donated to museums, it is far better that people are out finding fossils and bringing those bones to the light of day than for them to remain covered for the world to never see again.


Here comes the ethos: no matter your philosophy there should be the inclusion of proper care of the sites where you hunt. If you dig into the banks/walls of creeks and ditches, please consider slope failure in your process. Remember that other people use these places and a slope failure can harm, even kill people. There are massive crevasses in the slopes now and cracks appearing in the top where people walk and ride 4x4 vehicles. There may be service vehicles accessing this dirt road as well. This is extremely dangerous! Aside from that, destroying where you hunt will not provide better fossils. It will close off the site and keep fossils buried in the rubble that is left behind instead.



View from the top of the bank - you cannot even see the slope has been undercut

When you sift gravel, make sure live creatures such as fresh water claims and dragonfly nymphs are immediately returned to the water. After sifting, if you toss the gravel onto the bank, please return it to the water after you are done for the day. How can the gravel capture more fossils from the water if it's sitting on the banks? 


Aside from those smaller creatures we have also encountered deer, snakes, and seen evidence of dogs, raccoons and other animals. Remember this is their home. Please, respect that. Destruction of their habitat will affect how they survive (such as relying more on going towards human homes for food sources). If we tread more lightly and leave their ecosystem in tact, they can keep their own food sources and shelters without needing to encroach on ours. And please, for those that don't understand, it's not necessary to kill a snake just because you see it. Snakes will prefer to escape so give it that chance to get away. You will be fine. 


I know this has been a long read and people prefer short status updates instead. But this couldn't be condensed more. I'm a somewhat "wordy" person and am working on trying be more concise; however, this had several points of view. People fossil hunt for many different reasons and I hoped to appeal to everyone's points of view without making it sound like this is how all fossil hunters behave. We don't. This destruction is caused by one person or a very few number of people. But the rest of us need to make sure we are educating people about why this sort of destruction is unnecessary and uncalled for. I am not trying to be rude, "holier-than-thou", or trying to offer a lecture (though I clearly have). I just wish to inform. I hope that I have. Please feel free to share and comment. Thank you. 

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Thanks for this great and sad report, hope you are doing well!


>>What may be another real kick in the pants is that this undercutting is not well understood by me as they are not sifting what they are leaving behind. We have even pulled micro tiger shark teeth out of the huge chunks of rubble they left behind.<<

Same situation here at some sites. Not as destructive as in your report, but large chunks of matrix broken from the outcrop with many nice fossils freely visible left behind - ? Some people may go only for the very large stuff, it seems!

>> I get it, people want the big boys<<


Franz Bernhard

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