Fossil Collecting at Westmoreland State Park, Virginia

Adriane here-

An aerial view of Horse Head Cliffs at Westmoreland State Park overlook the Potomac River. The beautiful parallel layers of sediment contain fossils. Image courtesy of the VA Department of Conservation & Recreation.

Every now and then (well, as often as I can to be honest), I go fossil hunting with family, friends, and colleagues just for fun! There’s nothing like finding the remains of extinct animals and plants out in the field yourself. Although there are very few places where fossil collecting is prohibited, there are very few state parks and places in the US where it is encouraged. One of these places is Westmoreland State Park in Montross, Virginia.

This very well may have been the first place I found my very first fossil. I remember my dad had taken my siblings and I to the park one Saturday afternoon to play in the Potomac River and in the creeks and marshes nearby. But, once he told me we could find shark’s teeth on the river banks, my eyes were glued to the sand, systematically sweeping the ground in front of me. Lo and behold, I did find a shark’s tooth! And, it was a tooth that belonged to Carcharodon megalodon (or just Megalodon for short), one of the largest sharks to ever cruise the Earth’s oceans!

Stratigraphy of Westmoreland

Sifting for fossils on the banks of the Potomac River.

Westmoreland State Park is known among locals for its fossils, but any Virginia geologists will tell you the real gem of the park is its stratigraphy (well, OK, the fossils too). The oldest sediment that contain the fossils was laid down in a shallow extension of the Atlantic Ocean about 23-25 million years ago, during the lower Miocene. Younger sediments from the Pliocene (~5.3-2.5 million years ago) and Pleistocene (~2.5-0.01 million years ago) were laid atop the older Miocene deposits. Together, these different rock and sediment layers are called the Chesapeake Group. In the study of rock layers (=stratigraphy), a group includes different rock formations, each with their own name. For example, the Miocene formations in the Chesapeake Group (at least in parts of Virginia) are called the Calvert and Eastover formations.

After these formations were deposited, sea level dropped as glaciers on Greenland continued to grow. This allowed for rivers to flow further out into what was once a sea. Rivers are very powerful eroding mechanisms, as they have the capacity to move large boulders and wear down rocks (think of the Grand Canyon; it was made by the Colorado River cutting through the rock over time!) One of the rivers that now flows into the Atlantic Ocean is the Potomac River. This river is now eroding the Chesapeake Group formations, releasing all the fossils that were once contained in the rocks. Thus, some of these treasures wash ashore at Westmoreland State Park for visitors to find!

Fossils of Westmoreland

A small C. megalodon tooth found at Westmoreland State Park.

Over nearly a decade of visiting Westmoreland State Park, I have accumulated hundreds of shark teeth and found tons of other fossils. Some of these include whale teeth, vertebrae, rib bones and ear bones, dolphin teeth, vertebrae, rib bones and ear bones, fish vertebrae, shark vertebrae, coprolites (fossil poop), an alligator tooth, and mammal teeth. Most of these fossils are Miocene in age, but some are from the Pliocene and Pleistocene.

One of the most famous fossils to come out of the Chesapeake Group are those of the baleen whales. Several new species of whales have been found in Virginia in formations from the Miocene and Pliocene. One of these species, Eobalaeonoptera harrisoni, was found only five minutes down the road from my home in Virginia! E. harrisoni is a beloved icon of the area, in which it was found, so a complete cast of the whale now hangs in the Caroline County, VA visitor’s center.

The cast of Eobalaenoptera harrisoni that can be visited in the Caroline County, VA visitor’s center. Image from the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

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