Fossils in Virginia

the Virginia Museum of Natural History has drawers filled with the Virginia state fossil, Chesapecten jeffersonius
the Virginia Museum of Natural History has drawers filled with the Virginia state fossil, Chesapecten jeffersonius
Source: Virginia Museum of Natural History, The Amazing Chesapecten

Virginia's state fossil is Chesapecten jeffersonius, a scallop found in the Lower Yorktown Formation. Species in the genus Chesapecten swam in shallow Mid-Atlantic waters for 5 million years during the Miocene and Pliocene epochs, between 8 million - 3 million years ago.

If any fossilized dinosaur bones had ever been discovered in Virginia, then children might have petitioned the General Assembly to designate a dinosaur species as the state fossil. Chesapecten jeffersonius won the honor in part because in 1687 it became the first fossil from North America to be described n a European scientific journal, and in part because:1

Among the fossils we have, Chesapecten is an incredibly common fossil.

The sheer volume of surviving Chesapecten jeffersonius fossils have allowed fine-scale evaluation of how the species evolved, and how environmental conditions in the oceans shifted. Few other fossil records are sufficiently complete, with clear documentation of age, to assess change over time.

Though other scallop species replaced Chesapecten jeffersonius long before humans arrived in Virginia, Native Americans took advantage of the fossils to create scrapers. The Yorktown Formation was well-exposed on the Coastal Plain, and fossils could be extracted from the soft sediments by simply digging with a stick.2

Caves are a rich resource of fossils. In 1996, a mammoth tooth was found in Endless Caverns near a former entrance to the cave.

It was the fifth mamoth fossil found in Virginia. Th first was discovered in 1831 near Warrenton in Fauquier County. Several whole and fragmentary teeth were found in 1896 near Saltville in Smyth County, with further discoveries later. Clam diggers dredging on the Outer Continental Shelf brought up mammoth fossils and what may have been a lanceolate spearpoint in 1996.

The Ratliff fossil site in Russell County yielded mammoth fossils in 1993. Teeth, a portion of a tusk, a fragment of a pelvis, and an ulna (forearm bone) were dated to around 30,000 years ago.3

In 2016, fossils of an American cheetah (Miracinonyx trumani) were found in Burja Cave in Lee County. A paleontologist from the Virginia Museum of Natural History was brought to the discovery site deep in the cave to identify the bones, which were estimated to be between 10,000 - 500,000 years old. All but the the tip of the tail had been preserved, but were tightly fused by stone to the cave floor and to each other.

Removal required breaking the fosil into parts that could be wrapped, bagged, and hauled out. The process of removing the fossil to the mouth of the cave required roughly 30 hours of hiking and caving over two days. First, however, the paleontologist had to be trained over a year so he could safely:4

...descend multiple 40-foot pits, rappel over a floorless canyon and even belly-crawl through a crevice, all while covered in mud.

Caves and Springs in Virginia

Coastal Plain

Virginia Dinosaurs

Links

References

1. "Virginia's State Fossil," Geology of Virginia, College of William and Mary, http://geology.blogs.wm.edu/2016/07/13/virginia-state-fossil/; "The Amazing Chesapecten," Virginia Museum of Natural History, https://www.facebook.com/6590102478/videos/620440875219214 (last checked March 20, 2021)
2. "The Amazing Chesapecten," Virginia Museum of Natural History, https://www.facebook.com/6590102478/videos/620440875219214 (last checked March 20, 2021)
3. "Mammoth Tooth Found In Endless Caverns, Virginia," Virginia Minerals, Volume 45, Number 1 (February 1999), https://www.energy.virginia.gov/commercedocs/VAMIN_VOL45_NO01.pdf; "VA Mastodon and Mammoth pics," Landscape and Wetlands, Old Dominion University, https://whittecarmain.wordpress.com/resources/va-mastodon-and-mammoth-pics/ (last checked April 28, 2024)
4. "Caving team discovers, retrieves rare ice age-era cat skeleton from Southwest Virginia cave," Cardinal News, January 21, 2022, https://cardinalnews.org/2022/01/21/caving-team-discovers-retrieves-rare-ice-age-era-cat-skeleton-from-southwest-virginia-cave/ (last checked April 28, 2024)

Turitella fossils in Aquia Formation sandstone at the Virginia Energy office's rock garden in Charlottesville (car key for scale)
Turitella fossils in Aquia Formation sandstone at the Virginia Energy office's rock garden in Charlottesville (car key for scale)


Virginia Geology
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