Dredging Up the Past Paleontologists Uncover Fossilized Animal Bones, Teeth

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BRUNSWICK -- Three Smithsonian Institution paleontologists visited Chet Kirby's digs yesterday and picked up a few things to take home.

Kirby, an amateur paleontologist from Brantley County, has made such a name for himself at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, that he rated a personal visit. The scientists dug with Kirby yesterday in a deep hole on Andrews Island, a dredge spoil site between the East River and Turtle River.

They dug much of the day under skies that matched the flat gray sand and shell fragments where they found black pieces of fossilized animal teeth and bones. They stood shin deep in cold water scooping up shovelfuls of gritty dredge spoils.

Robert Purdy noted that the cold, windy weather was not what he had expected on the Georgia coast but said it was still better than staying in Washington, where a winter storm and huge crowds for George W. Bush's presidential inauguration both arrived over the weekend.

"We're looking for any identifiable bone," said Purdy, who gave a talk last night on shark's teeth at the University of Georgia's Marine Extension Service office in Brunswick. The fossilized bones, scales and teeth were pumped up from the Brunswick shipping channel and range in age, Purdy estimated, from 10,000 to 3 million years.

And they found plenty.

Kirby's son, Chester, handed Purdy a shark's tooth.

"A mako," he said.

Another of Kirby's sons, C.J. Jr., working halfway up an embankment, tossed down what he said was a piece of a porpoise beak. It wasn't just any porpoise beak, said David Bohaska, a specialist in whales and porpoises.

"It's a long beak porpoise. It had a three-foot beak," he said of the extinct mammal. "The closest thing is a freshwater porpoise found in India today."

Kirby, the proud father, said, "Didn't I tell you my kids were good?"

The most common finds yesterday were sizable fragments of shark's teeth and the ear bones of porpoises and whales. As Kirby, his sons, Bohaska and a third paleontologist, Fred Grady, dug up bones, Purdy examined them. He placed many in a bag to take back to the museum and others he tossed onto a pile that Kirby will hand out to kids when he makes fossil talks in schools.

Those bound for the Smithsonian will end up in the research collection because there were few intact pieces.

"They aren't pretty enough to exhibit," Bohaska said.

A lot of important fossils have turned up at dredge spoil sites, but many of the best have come from phosphate mines because those have not passed through pumps and pipes, Purdy said.

Purdy said there are many amateur paleontologists like Kirby, but "few as enthusiastic. …

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