Many young people — and old ones too — enjoy collecting fossil shark”s teeth. The Tombigee River Valley is full of chalk and sand outcroppings that contain many different kinds of fossils. In the Golden Triangle area, these deposits are mostly from the Cretaceous Period of geologic history and range from about 70 to 82 million years old. Throughout the area are found the teeth of sharks, giant fish, sea going reptiles and even an occasional dinosaur.
During the Cretaceous Period (some times called the “Age of Dinosaurs”) a great sea covered much of the South Central United States. The chalk and sands of our region date to the end of that period. The southern end of the then already ancient Appalachian Mountains was eroding and filling rivers with sand and gravel. These rivers were emptying into the forerunner of the Gulf of Mexico in northwest Alabama and the northeast corner of Mississippi.
When the Aberdeen, Columbus, Starkville and West Point area was covered by the inland sea, what is now Jackson and the part of the Delta around southern Humphreys County, were volcanic islands. The Delta volcano is known as the Midnight Volcano for the sleepy community of Midnight under which it lies. The Jackson Volcano was actually a 420-square-mile volcanic island on which Jackson now sits. The remains of the Jackson Volcano”s main vent still exist a half a mile beneath the city whose name it bares.
The large amounts of ash from these volcanoes reacting with the sea water created the bentonite deposits that are found around Aberdeen. Fortunately it has probably been 75 million years since there has been a major eruption and the two volcanoes are now considered extinct.
The variety of fossils that can be found in the Cretaceous deposits is amazing. One can find everything from amber to coral, shells, crabs, sand dollars, bones, plant remains and even coprolites (fossilized animal waste). It is teeth, however, that most seem to capture people”s imagination.
Fossil teeth have been collected around Columbus since the 1840s if not earlier. In the 1850s, Dr. William Spillman of Columbus found so many fossil teeth at Barton”s Bluff (now Clay County) that he named it “Sharks Defeat.” North of Tupelo at Frankstown construction along Highway 45 about 20 years ago exposed a formation that was full of sharks teeth and even contained some dinosaur teeth. The creek there is now a fossil park open to the public. Vinton Bluff in Clay County and Plymouth Bluff at the Columbus Lock and Dam have in the past yielded sharks teeth and dinosaur bones. At low water, fossil bearing sands are also exposed in the Luxapalila Creek around Columbus.
The teeth come from a wide range of often strange creatures. There was the “sabre-toothed” fish, Enchodus; the long necked “Loch Ness monster” looking Plesiosaur; the huge, up to 55-foot-long, sea-going reptile, Mosasaur; and many different kinds of sharks. One can find the teeth of the Scapanorhynchus or “Goblin” shark, the Squalicorax or “crow” shark, the Odontaspis or “sand-tiger” shark, and the shell crushing fish, Pycnodont.
There are many places in northeast Mississippi where fossils, such as shark”s teeth, can be found and collected. It is a fun and inexpensive activity that can be enjoyed by young and old together. When I was growing up, I was fortunate in that Dr. Jack Kaye, who taught geology, encouraged my interest in fossils and took time to help me collect and identify them. Most children are fascinated by dinosaurs, but few local adults realize that their fossil teeth have been found within the city limits of Columbus.
There are three nearby museums or fossil exhibits. Mississippi University for Women”s Plymouth Bluff Center has an excellent display of fossils found in the Columbus area. A broader range of fossils may be seen at the Dunn-Seiler Geology Museum at Mississippi State University and at The Alabama Museum of Natural History on the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa, Ala. A bit further away but excellent museums are the Pink Palace in Memphis and the Mississippi Museum of Natural History in Jackson. A good identification guide book is “A Guide to the Frankstown Vertebrate Fossil Locality” by Manning and Dockery. It is available from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at email@example.com.
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