Gettin’ Down & Dirty with Dr. Dana: Xiphactinus, Enchodus, & Other Cretaceous Chalk Critters

Harrell Station Paleontology Field Site

Harrell Station Paleontology Field Site

I’ve been wanting to go fossil-hunting since arriving in Alabama, as I keep hearing about the wonderful locations down here, & finally got to experience this particular cheap thrill thru evolution. Our friend & Alabama Museum of Natural History Paleontology Curator Dana Ehret was kind enough to take me & my family down to Harrell Station to sift thru the chalk during our spring break.

Hunting fossils with (clockwise from left) Dana Ehret, my son Jagger, me, & my son Lux. My son Bailey & wife Loretta are not pictured. (Photo by Loretta Lynn)

Hunting fossils with (clockwise from left) Dana Ehret, my son Jagger, me, & my son Lux. My son Bailey & wife Loretta are not pictured.

Various parts of Alabama have been oceanfront property at various points in prehistory. Tuscaloosa, in west central Alabama, where we live, was oceanfront during the Cretaceous, so much of the area south of us is rife with deposition fossils. Harrell Station is an old railway station with 166 acres nearby owned by the ALMNH as a Paleontology Site. It is old eroded farmland where the topsoil has washed away & exposed the underlying geological formation called the Selma Chalk. This deposition was formed when the area was a relatively shallow & calm sea. According to an article about the site published just after it was purchased by the Board of Regents thru a fundraising effort, a series of papers published from 1948 thru the 1970s were based on fossils collected in just one month. Major dinosaur, mosasaur, & other fossils have come out of the site over the years. Though much of the bigger finds on the surface are likely gone, there are thousands & thousands of other small fossils surfacing regularly.

Bailey digging.

Bailey digging.

Dana has only been on staff a few years &, as one of the few with access to the site, has the luxury of this site as his playground practically any time he wants. In fact, the EvoS Club may be organizing a fossil-hunting camping trip there right now. But let’s do it before it heats up around here.

We managed to get out of the house around 10:30 (we’re not early risers, especially on spring break) & got to the site around 11:30. We parked the van in an adjacent cow pasture & went ahead & ate lunch. There is a gully exposure just a few feet from where we parked, but Dana wanted to take us to a site in the back because he takes most kid groups to the closer exposure so they won’t have to walk far. That means the back site is less picked over. Still, it was probably less than a half mile walk to the back exposure.

Selfie of me & Luxie showing off our tools & treasures.

Me & Luxie showing off our tools & treasures.

As Dana explained, the tendency is for people to run to the furthest areas, expecting them to have been less picked over, to make the more glorious finds. In doing so, everyone tends to run past the fossils in the front. People also tend to enjoy the mounds sticking up, but it is the lower flats where everything has washed down that most things settle.

So, I went straight to the back to seek my glory, missing thousands of fossils underfoot no doubt as I went. My kids jumped from mound to mound pretending they were on the moon & digging with trowels & a pick-hammer along the way. For my trouble, I found two decent shark teeth.

Jagger was smart enough to follow around the expert & learn how to do it right.

Jagger was smart enough to follow around the expert & learn how to do it right.

Actually, my son Jagger was smart enough to tag along behind Dana. As a result, he made the find of the day, a full vertebrae from a Xiphactinus audax, a species of 15-20 feet long predatory fish of the late Cretaceous. Either because he was just totally into the whole adventure or because he made the coolest find, Jagger loved fossil hunting, which is awesome, as I hope to have at least one little buddy to drag back out with me next time we get a chance. I was a proud dad the next day too to see that he’d made the Fossil Friday find:

Jagger found this vertebrae from a Xiphactinus audax, a 15-20 feet long predatory fish from the lower Cretaceous just sitting on top of the chalk in a gully.

Jagger found this vertebrae from a Xiphactinus audax, a 15-20 feet long predatory fish from the lower Cretaceous just sitting on top of the chalk in a gully.

When the Lynns pooped out from sun exposure (the sun reflecting back up off the chalk can be killer) & were reclining in the shade admiring my two teeth, Dana kneeled down in the nearby flat he’d indicated originally & found half a dozen shark teeth, Enchodus teeth, & fish vertebrae in 5 minutes. Now that we were all tired from running all over the moon, we had the patience to follow his advice, hunker down in one place, & started to find several more small pieces. I found a number of Enchodus teeth as well, & Dana found a piece of Mosasaur he gave me for my collection to show students.

Like any hands-on activity, what had formerly been rather difficult to remember & keep in context is now very clear to me because I can see it around us. On the way back, Dana pointed out the pines that love the chalky soil & indicate where Cretaceous depositions lie. Given that the beachfront gradually moved south over the eons, I wondered aloud if there are any Eocene, Miocene, or Oligocene depositions exposed where we might find primates.

Loretta with the 60-75 million year old Goblin shark teeth I found in her mouth.

Loretta with the 60-75 million year old Goblin shark teeth I found in her mouth.

Down near the first Alabama state capitol, St. Stephens, there are Eocene & Miocene depositions, he says, though he doesn’t know of any primates or protoprimates findings there. However, there is a site near Meridian, Mississippi, which is just about an hour southeast of Tuscaloosa, called the Red Hot Truck Stop Locality that has elicited omomyid teeth. Omomyids are crown primates, meaning they are among the very first families of animals in the fossil record that can be identified as primate ancestors. Dana has not been to the Red Hot Truck Stop (which seems weird, as Dana, like us, is definitely a lowbrow haute couture kind of person), but Chris Beard (he of Eosimias fame–OK, famous in fossil primate circles, but I’ve taught his book & discuss Eosimias every year as a possible base ancestor) has published on the findings.

My booty for the day. Damn, no primates during the Cretaceous? And what did I collect more of than anything else? Fossilized worm burrows that looked like turds turned to pyrite. And I picked up a real turd too. It was desiccated but still...definitely.not.a.fossil.

My booty for the day. More of than anything else, I collected fossilized worm burrows that looked like turds turned to pyrite. And I picked up a real turd too. It was desiccated but still…definitely.not.a.fossil. (Photo by Chris Lynn)

When I got home, I pulled up a recent article in which Beard describes the numerous species found at the site. First, the Red Hot Truck Stop Locality was literally a well-known truck stop, & there is at least one website lamenting its passing. Behind the building that, I believe, still stands & now houses another business, is the exposure to which some have access.

A whole host of fossils have been described from the Red Hot site (just Google Red Hot Truck Stop & look at it all!), but I had no idea that, according to Beard (2008) the most basal species of omomyids (Teilhardina magnoliana), who flourished after the Paleocene-Eocene boundary, had been found near here. Omomyids & the other Paleocene-Eocene crown primates the adapids are always a bit difficult to teach, as they don’t grab most students the way the fossil hominids do (well, some of the students), but I am excited to be able to now connect one of them to the local landscape & a site (the truck stop restaurant, that is) that the local kids may actually know firsthand!

Driving thru cotton fields on our way home, we stopped to take a picture in front of what looks to be a share cropper's cabin. (Photo by Chris Lynn)

Finally, driving thru cotton fields on our way home, we stopped to take a picture in front of what looks to be a share cropper’s cabin. A reminder of where we are. (Photo by Chris Lynn)

Christopher Lynn

About Christopher Lynn

Christopher Dana Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, where he directs the Evolutionary Studies program.  Chris teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in biological anthropology, human sexuality, evolution, biocultural medical anthropology, and neuroanthropology.  He received his Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology in 2009 from the University at Albany, SUNY, where his doctoral focus was on the influence of speaking in tongues on stress response among Pentecostals.  Chris runs a human behavioral ecology research group where the objectives include studying fun gimmicky things like trance, religious behavior, tattooing, and sex as a way of introducing students to the rigors of evolutionary science.  In all his “free” time, he breaks up fights among his triplet sons, enjoys marriage to the other Loretta Lynn, strokes his mustache, and has learned to be passionate about Alabama football (Roll Tide!).  Follow Chris on Twitter: @Chris_Ly
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