The tooth was just lying there on top of the sand. It wasn’t half-buried. It wasn’t tossed in a jumbled shell bed. There were no shell beds. Three things made
The tooth was just lying there on top of the sand. It wasn’t half-buried. It wasn’t tossed in a jumbled shell bed. There were no shell beds. Three things made this find remarkable, and that was the first. There were hardly any shells on the beach at all, aside from jagged oysters. That’s generally a bad sign if you’re hunting for shark teeth — no shells, no teeth.
In the calm after an early spring storm, the sky was still dark, the sand was still pock-marked from the rain, and the ocean lapped the shore like bath water sloshing in a tub. That’s where it lay: right in the swash, tiny waves just barely kissing it. Like most of the shark teeth that my then-boyfriend, Alex, and I found washed up on Topsail Island, this one was pitch black. Unlike most of those other teeth, it was two and a half inches long, the root was intact, and it could fill up the palm of your hand if you picked it up. Which we hadn’t done.
We’d been searching for all of three minutes — that’s the second thing that made our find remarkable. You don’t uncover long-lost treasures without putting in the time. When the rain had stopped, we’d taken the quick walk to the beach access, kicked off our shoes, and made a beeline for the water. We knew that other beachcombers would be out looking, too. A storm usually precedes washed-up wonders. And yet there were no shell beds.
Disappointed and prepared to go home empty-handed, we debated: Should we walk north or south? We almost always went north, but as we stood at the shoreline, pondering, a fellow hunter walked by us, head down, holding a bucket and scanning the sand. We dejectedly followed in his wake. South. You could call that remarkable, too, because moments later —
“Katie!” Alex said. His tone grabbed my attention. I looked up from the sand. His eyes were wide. I looked back down and half-gasped. We stared at the tooth like it might disappear. The man had walked right past it — that was the third thing that made our find remarkable. He’d completely missed it. In an instant, I picked up the
tooth, hiding it in my hand like he might come back for it. Like someone else might run over and try to snatch it away from us. Like the ocean might suddenly decide to take it back. “Oh my God,” we repeated. We took turns holding it and holding each other as we jumped up and down and whisper-screamed like a couple of kids.
Finding that tooth was remarkable, but it wasn’t blind luck. Not for us. You’ve seen those kids who pop up in the news: the ones wearing big grins and holding gigantic megalodon teeth — we call those teeth “megs,” and they belonged to prehistoric 50-foot behemoths — that they found on vacation. Those kids make Alex and me so … jealous. Really, it’s just not fair — they don’t even know how remarkable their finds are. They haven’t put in the work!
Alex and I had been looking for years — for shark teeth and, though we didn’t know it, for each other. On our first date, we discovered that we’d both grown up spending summer vacations and New Year’s Eves at Topsail Beach. His family had a place on the sound; my family’s friends had a place on the ocean. The houses were a little more than a mile apart. We talked about the possibility that we had crossed paths before. Maybe we’d sat near each other while eating cheeseburgers at Andy’s (now Hwy 55 Burgers Shakes & Fries) or waited in line at the same time for dip cones at the old Dairy Queen (now a bottle shop) in Surf City. Maybe we’d even passed each other on the beach while hunting for shark teeth — a pastime that we both picked up from our moms — never looking up from the sand.
On that first date, we commiserated: There aren’t as many teeth as there used to be. The tides have changed. The island is different. But neither of us ever stopped searching. Soon afterward, we started looking together, and not just at the beach — also in back creeks and tidal rivers and hot, shadeless rock piles across the Coastal Plain.
We exchanged “I love yous” for the first time in a fossil pit at the Aurora Fossil Museum near the Pamlico River, our hands dusty — and mine shaking — with million-year-old dirt, fossilized shells digging into our thighs, our backs aching, and plastic bags filled with shark teeth in our pockets. A search complete, something found.
There’s something addictive about finding an artifact lost to tides and time — especially when that artifact is sharp, once belonged to a prehistoric predator, and is still vaguely dangerous. It’s something that nobody else has ever touched — never even laid eyes on for millions of years. You become an explorer, a pioneer.
Cynthia Crane, a paleontologist, geologist, and executive director of the Aurora Fossil Museum, knows that feeling well. “Fossil collectors all have that one moment where they got hooked, and mine is … well, basically from birth,” Crane says, laughing. “My mom told me that when I was little and starting to teethe, she’d have to take rocks out of my mouth. As a kid, I’d find fossils pressed in rock, and I loved wondering, Am I the first to find this?”
In North Carolina, we have the opportunity to ask that question more frequently than most. Beneath our state’s soil and waves is a lost world waiting to be discovered — a geologic trove that we claim as our own.
Beneath our state’s soil and waves is a lost world waiting to be discovered.
In the 1950s, mining companies began searching for phosphate ore deposits near the Pamlico River. About 50 years ago, coral specimens were found in drilling samples obtained near present-day Aurora. They were sent to the Smithsonian Institution, whose scientists soon visited — and identified the area as one that produces the most prolific fossil record of Miocene (23 million to 5.3 million years ago) and Pliocene (5.3 to 2.6 million years ago) marine life on the Atlantic Coast.
“Our Coastal Plain is made up of sedimentary rock,” Crane says. “As the coastline came in and went out over the course of millions of years, it built up that sedimentary rock, creating layers beneath our feet — layers of land animals and layers of marine animals locked in the rock layer. That’s why we have such a rich fossil record here.”
Off the coast of southeastern North Carolina, including Topsail Island, the ocean erodes this sedimentary rock, which forms the shelf, setting fossilized shark teeth from the Miocene and Pliocene eras free to eventually wash ashore. On the Coastal Plain, teeth wash out of the banks of many of the creeks and rivers east of Interstate 95.
And in places like Aurora, it just takes a little (OK, a lot of ) digging: As the phosphate mine began prospecting on the south side of the Pamlico in the early ’60s — which meant dredging through several fossil-bearing formations, including the James City (Pliocene), Yorktown (Pliocene), and Pungo River (Miocene) formations — incredible scientific discoveries were unearthed. In the mid-1970s, infrastructure for the town of Aurora was built, and in 1976, the town, the mine, East Carolina University, and the Smithsonian partnered to open the Aurora Fossil Museum — a place to document and preserve the incredible fossils being found and to share them with the public.
Nearly 50 years later, the museum continues to keep the past alive. Over the years, the museum, the town, and the mine have remained in partnership (and, for the record, the teeth in the megalodon jaw displayed at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., are from Aurora). In the Aurora Fossil Museum’s park, explorers young and old dig through fossil pits filled with “spoils,” or excess material from deep within the phosphate mine, in search of the big one — a megalodon tooth, our official state fossil — as well as other fossils.
“Someone once told me that word of mouth is one of the least effective ways to get people to visit a museum,” Crane says incredulously. “But word of mouth is golden for us. Visiting the museum and hunting for fossils is passed down and shared with others. It becomes a rite of passage.”
Just as Alex and I both discovered shark teeth by watching our moms walk along the beach on Topsail — slightly hunched over, heads bent, hands clasped behind them, in search of that telltale black shine, that slightly sharper shape in a sea of softened edges, that thing that doesn’t quite belong, which, over time, you train your eyes to find — the two of us will share this treasure hunt with our future children. Once you find your first tooth, you’re hooked. And each one after is just as exciting. It doesn’t matter if it’s chipped and worn from the waves, deep red from the clay of an eastern North Carolina creek, or as tiny and sharp as a pin — it’s always a shot of adrenaline.
“It’s that eureka moment,” Crane says. “When I look out my window and see families making memories in the fossil pit, it’s all worth it. I call it happy chaos. At the museum, kids can touch and respond, and they don’t have to be quiet. They can engage the way they want to engage. Sometimes, when kids find a tooth — not even necessarily a meg! — their hands are shaking. They get so excited, and then we get excited, and they get even more excited.”
The museum’s annual fossil festival each May draws thousands of visitors — or “megalomaniacs” and “fossil fanatics,” as Crane calls them — from North Carolina and beyond; last year, the event hosted 15,000 attendees. And the museum is now in the initial stages of planning a new building on Main Street, with an expanded park, more interactive exhibits, and a learning center. All to ensure that this pastime continues to be passed down — a link to prehistoric times that’s so real you can reach out, pick it up, and put it in a jar.
Alex’s and my own incredible find — which belonged to a prehistoric white shark — is now hanging in a shadow box in our study. We spend summer vacations together on Topsail Island, heads bent to the sand, still searching for an elusive meg. A few months ago, on New Year’s Eve, we got married. Shark teeth were a part of our wedding vows: We promised each other that we’d never stop looking together.print it