FOSSIL FASCINATION; Millions of Years of Marine History at Calvert Museum

Article excerpt


For a city with its finger on the pulse of the nation, it's surprising that few Washington area residents are aware of the virtual "Jurassic Park" in their own back yard. But a trip to the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons in Calvert County, Md., brings that reality to life, figuratively speaking.

At the museum, the remains of marine creatures that dominated the Chesapeake Bay region more than 10 million years ago are on display. Fossils of prehistoric whales, dolphins, sharks, stingrays and sea birds the size of small airplanes offer a glimpse into a time when southern Maryland was covered with a shallow sea that extended all the way to the District.

As one in a series of exhibits that offer a time line of life in the Patuxent River region, the paleontology exhibit, called "Treasures From the Cliffs," explores the oldest and least-known era. Museum patrons can sort through drawers lined with collections of bones from extinct marine animals, such as species of crocodiles, sea cows and leatherback turtles in addition to clams, oysters, scallops and snail shells. Most of the fossils were found on local beaches after eroding from the massive cliffs that line the Bay in Calvert.

"From time to time, we do find fossil remains of animals such as elephants, camels and rhinos, but these are very rare and they are all extinct forms," curator of paleontology Stephen Godfrey says.

Mr. Godfrey has been leading scientific excavations of Calvert Cliffs for five years. He says the stretch of cliffs that runs through the county holds some of the best records of marine life from the Miocene Epoch - between 10 million and 20 million years ago.

Indeed, scientists have been studying specimens from the region for centuries, and the cliffs have contributed to collections at the Smithsonian Institution. Many fossils on display at the Calvert Marine Museum were donated by county residents, who discovered the specimens on local beaches. A sign above each display credits these contributors.

On an exam table in a lab, a recently discovered fossil lies as a massive white mound under plastic. Its size is daunting to a group of visiting children. They press their small faces and hands anxiously against a window that separates the room from the exhibit. They ogle at the specimen on the table as if at any second it could rise with the force of the Frankenstein monster and break through the plastic.

A room away, visitors look up into the gaping mouth of the extinct giant white shark. The replica of the 50-foot creature plunges from the ceiling, suspended in attack position by thin black cables. In the museum's Discovery Room, children sift through a sandbox containing real fossilized shark teeth, which they are allowed to take home.

Many patrons visit the museum after a sun-soaked day collecting shark teeth on one of the public beaches within a short drive of the museum. Shark teeth are the most commonly found remains.

Camryn Menke, 7, and her grandmother, Nancy Feuerle of Calvert, have just spent a day collecting shark teeth. The duo found about 20 teeth.

"I love the museum," Mrs. Feuerle says. "I live on the Bay and every time I come here I learn something I didn't know before."

For those visitors interested in searching for shark's teeth or other fossils, the museum offers directions to one of five local beaches where fossils are commonly found. …