- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 13, 2003

For a city with its finger on the pulse of the nation, it’s surprising that few Washington area residents are aware of the virtual “Jurassic Park” in their own back yard. But a trip to the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons in Calvert County, Md., brings that reality to life, figuratively speaking.

At the museum, the remains of marine creatures that dominated the Chesapeake Bay region more than 10 million years ago are on display. Fossils of prehistoric whales, dolphins, sharks, stingrays and sea birds the size of small airplanes offer a glimpse into a time when southern Maryland was covered with a shallow sea that extended all the way to the District.

As one in a series of exhibits that offer a time line of life in the Patuxent River region, the paleontology exhibit, called “Treasures From the Cliffs,” explores the oldest and least-known era. Museum patrons can sort through drawers lined with collections of bones from extinct marine animals, such as species of crocodiles, sea cows and leatherback turtles in addition to clams, oysters, scallops and snail shells. Most of the fossils were found on local beaches after eroding from the massive cliffs that line the Bay in Calvert.

“From time to time, we do find fossil remains of animals such as elephants, camels and rhinos, but these are very rare and they are all extinct forms,” curator of paleontology Stephen Godfrey says.



Mr. Godfrey has been leading scientific excavations of Calvert Cliffs for five years. He says the stretch of cliffs that runs through the county holds some of the best records of marine life from the Miocene Epoch — between 10 million and 20 million years ago.

Indeed, scientists have been studying specimens from the region for centuries, and the cliffs have contributed to collections at the Smithsonian Institution. Many fossils on display at the Calvert Marine Museum were donated by county residents, who discovered the specimens on local beaches. A sign above each display credits these contributors.

On an exam table in a lab, a recently discovered fossil lies as a massive white mound under plastic. Its size is daunting to a group of visiting children. They press their small faces and hands anxiously against a window that separates the room from the exhibit. They ogle at the specimen on the table as if at any second it could rise with the force of the Frankenstein monster and break through the plastic.

A room away, visitors look up into the gaping mouth of the extinct giant white shark. The replica of the 50-foot creature plunges from the ceiling, suspended in attack position by thin black cables. In the museum’s Discovery Room, children sift through a sandbox containing real fossilized shark teeth, which they are allowed to take home.

Many patrons visit the museum after a sun-soaked day collecting shark teeth on one of the public beaches within a short drive of the museum. Shark teeth are the most commonly found remains.

Camryn Menke, 7, and her grandmother, Nancy Feuerle of Calvert, have just spent a day collecting shark teeth. The duo found about 20 teeth.

“I love the museum,” Mrs. Feuerle says. “I live on the Bay and every time I come here I learn something I didn’t know before.”

For those visitors interested in searching for shark’s teeth or other fossils, the museum offers directions to one of five local beaches where fossils are commonly found. The closest, Calvert Cliffs State Park, is just six miles north of Solomons. There, a 1.8-mile hike through marshlands leads to a quiet, often secluded beach.

Breezy Point Beach offers a more expansive stretch of beach for fossil collecting. It also is a popular swimming and sunbathing spot.

Knowing what to look for is the key to finding shark teeth. Most teeth are found in shallow water just off the shoreline, where shells and rocks collect. The triangular teeth are discernable from modern teeth by a brownish tint and glassy hue. When tapped with a fingernail or lightly against a tooth, the specimen should make a distinctive sound, similar to tapping on a piece of pottery, Mr. Godfrey says.

For those collectors trying to decide whether their prized specimen is a prehistoric camel femur or fossilized tree limb, the museum can help. Local collectors can bring their findings by for a free assessment. Of course, many people believe that the real fun of fossil collecting is not knowing quite what you’re bringing home.

WHEN YOU GO:

Location: The Calvert Marine Museum is in Solomons in Calvert County, Md.

Directions: From the Beltway, take Route 4 south into Calvert County. Route 4 turns into Route 2/4, which leads into Solomons. Once in Solomons, stay in the right lane of Route 2/4. It will exit to Route 2, passing under the Thomas Johnson Bridge. Make a left, drive about 200 yards, and the museum will be right in front of you.

Hours: The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., but is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s days.

Admission and parking: Adults pay $5, senior citizens (55 and older) pay $4, children ages 5 to 12 pay $2. Admission is free for children under 5 and museum members.

Information: 410/326-2042 or visit www.calvertmarinemuseum.com.

Tips and rules:

• Besides the paleontology exhibit, the main museum features exhibits on estuarine biology and maritime history. Accompanying buildings include the Drum Point Lighthouse, one of a few remaining cottage-style lights from the turn of the century; a real otter aquarium; and a small craft shed that showcases a collection of small Chesapeake boats. From May to October, visitors can take a one-hour tour of the Solomons waterfront on the Wm B. Tennison, an oyster buy boat built in 1899.

• Most of the beaches in Calvert charge a small fee or parking fee. Visitors should call ahead to check conditions and when the beaches close for the season.

• Fossil collectors must have permission before collecting fossils from private property. Digging into the cliffs is illegal and unsafe, as erosion constantly weakens the cliffs.

• Report findings such as skulls or intact skeletons to the museum so excavation teams can collect the specimens.

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