My warm thanks to Dr. April Holifield for her input in this source compilation.
Searching for fossil basilosaur, mosasaur, megalodon and assorted shark teeth in Mississippi:
Where and how to look?
Rand, in “Mississippi Megalodon” wrote a fictional story about a megalodon and a submarine in Sardis reservoir, a man-made North Mississippi lake. It is part of the “American Chillers” series targeted at adolescents. As a child, I was enthralled with the sharp-toothed eating machines called dinosaurs: terrestrial or marine. As a child and an adult, I have hunted fossils primarily due to the influence of my father. My dad was my scoutmaster and he took me, my family and many other eager scouts around Mississippi on intriguing fossil-hunt adventures. He helped turn by dreams into discoveries. I began making YouTube videos of fossil hunting at the Frankstown fossil site as described by Manning and Dockery, in 2015. Since then, I have incorporated the fossil hunting adventure videos into my biology teaching and have cooperated with other amateurs and professionals along the way. So why fossil hunting? Fossil hunting is usually free, it’s local and is an adventurous family excursion.
Where and how does an interested person look for these predator fossil treasures of Mississippi? A few minutes considering the paleogeography of Mississippi will set the stage for our local fossil pursuit. Seventy to ninety million years ago, during the Cretaceous period, a long and narrow ocean separated the western United States from the Eastern (Horner 24; Manning 1); Horner called it the “Western Interior Cretaceous Seaway” (Horner 24). During that time, sharks and mosasaurs were abundant and roamed this dividing ocean. Mississippi was covered by this seaway.
Fast forward to 50 million years ago (Eocene): “Whales on steroids;” basilosaurs, came into the picture while mosasaurs and some sharks became extinct (Bakker 430). The coastline receded and the overlying central Mississippi geography was transformed into a more limited marine habitat for the swimming carnivorous beasts. The marine delta area thus formed is referred to as the “Mississippi Embayment” (Manning 1) which covered the western part of the state during the Eocene epoch.
Eighteen million years ago (Miocene) the megalodon, a huge shark, was dominant. According to the timeline map seen in “Formation and evolution of the Delta,”it appears that megalodon fossil teeth might be more geographically prevalent around and south of Jackson as the Mississippi shoreline had moved further south by that time in geologic history.
With this paleogeography in mind, the entire state of Mississippi is scattered with multiple collection points for the teeth of the ancient swimmers (Dockery). Though Mississippi did have some land dinosaurs, the dominant fossil artifacts are oceanic and marine in origin. Where and how does an interested person look for these predator fossil treasures of Mississippi?
The goal is to discover cover where to look for these fossil teeth in Mississippi. I believe first- hand experience is best. I will therefore discuss locations where I have personally collected fossils of the marine carnivores. First things first, however.
Fossil hunting permissions
Safety, site accessibility and permissions are all important aspects of fossil excavating. A crucial part of fossil hunting is gaining permission to collect. One does not want to be called “trespasser, thief,” or convicted of the like. Horner spent a lot of time in his book “Digging Dinosaurs” discussing permissions to dig for fossils (Horner 52). He even mentioned moving excavation sites as one landowner/family was no longer willing to give permission to have people on their land. Horner described benefiting from an oil drilling company who was disturbing the landscape but simultaneously unearthing new fossils, in his case hadrosaurs (duck-billed dinosaurs). Our target happens to be shark teeth and other marine carnivore dental.
Check out this saga: I have been hunting shark teeth at the W.M. Browning Cretaceous fossil park for years. I have a YouTube playlist explaining how to sift for and collect fossils. I take fossils out of the park. A friend introduced me to the site. Just recently, while writing this paper, I saw Frankstown Fossils (from the park) for sale on a European website. Word gets around: come here and dig for free and make money! (This is prohibited, by the way.)
I was filming there in August of 2019 with an agency and the producer called and asked about the actual location of the park. “It is called the Frankstown fossil site, but it is actually located in Baldwyn, Mississippi,” he said. It was not on Google maps. I promptly and personally put the W. M. Browning Cretaceous park on Google maps, along with a few pictures of my activities there.
As I was researching for this paper, I stumbled across a statement of the Vicksburg National Military Park website related to fossils (Fossils: National Park Service 3). It said if fossils were found (paraphrased), “please notify the park officials, but do not remove the fossils.” Well then; this was an awkward moment. Is W. M. Browning Cretaceous fossil park under federal or state jurisdiction too, thus deeming collection there an offense?
I called the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks and understood from the contact that the park (W.M. Browning) was not a Mississippi state park. The contact had no knowledge of the park and immediately looked it up on Facebook. She exclaimed: “There are all sorts of pictures of people digging and keeping stuff from there on Facebook!” Yep. I then looked on the Mississippi National Park website and determined that it is not listed as a National Park. It appears that collection there does not violate any state or federal laws.
Next, I called the production lead for the 2019 filming crew and discussed the matter. The agency was not aware of any potential violations, and my consideration of legality was appreciated. I am a good Boy Scout and I do not do bad things purposely, but it was possible that I had committed an error of omission: me, along with thousands of others.
After a bit, I realized that I was not “settled” on the matter of permissions. I visited the Baldwyn Chamber of Commerce web page and left an email contact asking: “Is it acceptable to collect and keep fossils found at the W.M. Browning Cretaceous Fossil Park?” I then called the Baldwyn Chamber of Commerce. The lady related that the park was in Frankstown. “I understand, but the Google address says Baldwyn; that is why I called you. Her: “Understood, people go and dig there all of the time, I was told that the land is privately owned.” I replied: “This explains why there are no bathrooms.” “Yes,” she replied. I asked for a name of a person who said it is acceptable to hunt fossils there. None was supplied. I did tell her that I had collected and filmed videos on site about how to find fossil shark teeth there. I was advised to call the Prentiss County Board of Supervisors and possibly the Baldwyn Sherriff’s department. I did both.
The man that answered at the Sheriff’s department told me that his supervisor said it was okay to collect and keep fossils found at the site. No name supplied. “Did you think it was not okay to collect there,” he asked? I then described this English paper I am writing which includes references to my YouTube videos and the assumption that it was acceptable to collect there. “In the writing of this paper on the topic, I ran across a prohibition against collecting at Vicksburg National Military park (Fossils: National Park Service Vicksburg 3). I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t violating anything in my adventures.” I divulged that I had made a call to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks and they had no knowledge of the site; it was not listed as a Mississippi park.
Next, I called the Prentiss county Board of Supervisors board room phone number. “Everyone does it,” was the response. “So, is there a name I can quote as saying this is acceptable?” No. This lady informed me that they were going to rededicate the park soon. I also told her that I had been collecting there for a while and wanted to make sure it was okay, even if “everyone does it.” I also found an email address for the Prentiss county board of supervisors, and I left a similar message asking the same thing: “Is it acceptable to collect and keep fossils found at the fossil park?”
I was beginning to feel somewhat satisfied that I have not been violating any policies and that you as a collector would not be breaking the law by going and collecting there. After waiting on a couple of emails, a contact was made through the Prentis County Board of Supervisors and permission to collect, but not to sell (no commercial activity) was given.
A 25th anniversary celebration of the park is scheduled for May 2, 2020 (which has now been postponed due to COVID-19), of which I have now been invited, due to the email interchange. Persistence pays off. He who seeks finds; and sometimes one finds something he or she was not looking for: an invitation.
Permissions are not optional. The saying “ask for forgiveness later” does not fit with the responsibility associated with fossil hunting. Since many fossil hunting expeditions are outfitted with numerous people, it is imperative that all participants be placed in a position of legal safety. With permission secured at W. M. Browning Cretaceous fossil park secured, it is my featured collection point for the remainder of this article. Other potential sites are listed but permissions must precede.
Listed below are my best current site choices for pursuit of predatorial marine animals in Mississippi.
- Shark and mosasaur teeth:
Permission has been given to the public to search for fossils in the stream bed at W.M. Browning, but not to alter the course of the creek or carry off any of the large concretions. The collecting does not allow for commercial ventures. The Frankstown/W.M. Browning Cretaceous Fossil park is in Northeast Mississippi on Hwy 45 just north of its intersection with Hwy 30. A spade and a sifting device are used effectively here to easily find Scapanorhynchus (goblin shark fossils) and oyster shells. Squalicorax (crow shark) fossils are found in lesser quantity, along with other fossil remains. Crow shark teeth are listed as common and goblin shark teeth are listed as abundant (Manning and Dockery 6). “Fossils” on the Mississippi encyclopedia website verifies the easy find of shark teeth in Northeast Mississippi (Fossils-Mississippi Encyclopedia 1). It is important to dig in the sand until crunchy detritus is felt. This crunchy sediment is sifted for the fossils. The Manning and Dockery bulletin is useful in identifying fossils. Although the publication by Manning and Dockery mentions mosasaur teeth and other mosasaur fossils (Manning and Dockery 13) found at the Frankstown site, I have not found them. Mosasaur parts are listed as rare in their publication for the W.M. Browning/Frankstown fossil site.
In “Checklist | Let’s go fossil hunting at Baldwyn/Franktown, MS,” amateur paleontologist Dr. Darrell Barnes reviewed proper equipment and precautions for hunting fossils at the site: Safety is first and the buddy system is recommended. Do not go exploring by yourself. There are no bathroom facilities on site as of early 2020, so plan accordingly. Bring water and hydrate. Go to the W.M. Browning Cretaceous fossil park in May-September when the water is warm. The reality is that the W.M. Browning Cretaceous Fossil Water Park could be the actual name. I have never been fossil hunting at the site when I did not get soaking wet and need a shower and change of clothing immediately following. Ticks could be an issue even though I have never spotted any on my corpus after an excursion there.
In the YouTube video: “How to find fossil shark teeth at the Baldwyn/Frankstown, MS fossil park #1,” by Darrell Barnes, W.M. Browning Cretaceous fossil park history is described in the introduction. A description of how to traverse downward into the 20-mile creek gulch follows. Robbie McCrory, a fossil hunter, explained his construction design for a detritus sifting screen. Robbie and his fossil-hunting companion, Tony Crouch from Fulton, Mississippi described in the video how that they dig under logs and detritus in the creek to obtain the best gravel for sifting. They told that they find the biggest and best fossils under the logs stuck in the creek sand. Charles Barnes, Darrell Barnes and Melissa Vasquez demonstrated the process of sifting to find fossil shark teeth: detritus is shoveled into the sifter and it is shaken like “panning for gold” to filter sand and leave the larger stuff. At the end of the video, Dr. Barnes explained where the site is located: just off Highway 45, north of the Highway 30 crossover in Northeast Mississippi. The dig site is located at the first road to the right once on Hwy 45 just north of 30.
In the “Brandon Chism Fossil loot” video, Dr. Barnes attempted to identify fossils of a student who collected at the site. The Manning and Dockery document was utilized in the identification of fossils from the site. He mediated some of his incorrect verbalizations with in-screen corrections. The most common shark tooth fossils found by Brandon were the goblin shark: Scapanorhynchus fossils.
In the YouTube video: “Getting ready to go fossil shark-tooth hunting,” Dr. Barnes showed off some of his fossil shark teeth collected at Frankstown, and then proceeded with a DIY (do-it-yourself) approach to illustrate how he modified one of his fossil sifters to process detritus faster. His goal was to create a 2-stage filtration system with about a 1 cm wire aperture for the top sifter and normal screen door wire size for the bottom sifter. This allows the larger fossil teeth to be caught on the top tier and smaller teeth to fall through the top be caught on the bottom tier. The promising gravel for fossil shark teeth hunting has dark black shale fragments in it. Caution: If a shovel is used to place detritus directly into the smaller screen door sifter, it will cut the wire and make gashes in the wire, necessitating wire replacement. Lesson: Shovel sand initially into the more coarse and rigid top sifter.
- Shark, including megalodon teeth:
I have also collected fossil shark teeth somewhere near Byram, MS. I am not sure I could find this place 40 years later; I hunted fossils there in the 1970’s. We parked at a gravel pullover on a remote road. I remember crossing a major power line right-of-way to get to the creek. My dad was my scoutmaster and I am sure he asked for permission, but I do not know who he asked. In Byram, the sediment gravel was on the surface, so it was much easier to process. I found fossil shark teeth, ray tooth plates and even a shark centrum/vertebral disc.
My dad told of an educator who walked the stream beds in that area and found a 4-inch Carcharocles megalodon (giant shark) tooth. He was simply visually scanning the creek bed as he walked. The area in central MS was covered with shallow ocean in the Eocene period and thus this area is ripe for finding shark teeth, including the megalodon.
Calcium phosphate/phosphorite fossilization is more prevalent in teeth and vertebrate bones (Ettensohn 1) and is thus more durable and more likely to remain intact long enough to be found by a fossil hunter. Dr. Ettensohn, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Kentucky related that the hardness of calcite (CaCO3) is “3” and that phosphorite (Ca3PO4) has a hardness of “5” (on a scale of 1-10). In the article “Fossilization-How Fossils form” on the Virtual Museum website, calcium carbonate is described as likely to degrade over time.
As my scoutmaster, my dad took us to a concrete/limestone plant near Jackson, Mississippi, back in the 1970’s. On page 19, Daly mentioned a clay quarry. This may be the one. On page 17, Daly mentioned a partial Zygorhiza skull found in Jackson; again, this have been the magical site for the skull. We found fossil sea biscuits, concretion casts and my dad told me that I had found a Zeuglodon (basilosaur) bone. I still have the sea biscuit and the clam concretion cast, but cannot locate the bone, which I believe was the proximal end of a rib bone. We did not find phosphatic/phosphorite teeth but calcium carbonate (invertebrate) fossils at the limestone quarry. The “bone” that I found, as I remember was very chalky like the other fossils I found. This does not agree with the likely phosphorite composition of the archaeocetan vertebrate. There was not a lack of calcite fossils at the quarry where we were searching, but I think that their preservation was due to the condition of the casts and fossils being embedded in similar material. The chalky fossils were thus cushioned in similar material in the quarry. Chalky carbonate-based fossils in a stream bed would be ground to bits, I think. I did not collect basilosaur teeth at the limestone quarry, but that does not mean they were not there. This is from my memory of 40 years ago. We were simply visually scanning for fossils; the same way most fossil hunting is done.
Daly, on page 5 of her publication noted that basilosaur bones have been found in Scott County, Mississippi (Mississippi County Map with County Seat Cities) and multiple fossils of Zygorhiza, a smaller archaeocetan, an ancient whale, have been found in Yazoo County (Daly 12), Mississippi. This specimen was the basis for making this marine whale our Mississippi state fossil (Daly 5) as validated on the Paleontology page of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. Daly, on page 15, mentioned a basilosaur “bone-yard” in Clarke County. The teeth are also mentioned as found in the same county on page 22. Yazoo and Clarke counties are listed as basilosaur/archaeocetan sites numerously in Daly’s “Bibliography and Index.”
- Basilosaur versus Megalodon:
Dockery, in “Windows into Mississippi’s Geologic Past,” paired with a young artist Katie Lightsey to produce a clever publication which described how it might be personally to travel back in time to view different animals in the ancient past. The text revealed that both carnivores, megalodon and basilosaur, lived at the same time (not fiction) and may have been likely opponents. He thus referred to the presence of basilosaur AND megalodon teeth as present in the clay pits at Cynthia, Mississippi (Dockery 44). I think Daly referenced this same site in “A list, bibliography and index of the fossil vertebrates of Mississippi”(Daly 19). This “Yazoo formation” was unearthed at a Jackson, Mississippi Ready-Mix pit. I believe this is the identity and location of the concrete/limestone plant I mentioned in the previous section. In the Mississippi fossil literature, I saw the Cynthia, MS site discussed repeatedly. We need to get permission and check it out.
- Cragin Knox, Director of the Mississippi Office of Geology in the 1990’s in the introduction to Eleanor Daly’s: “A list, bibliography and index of fossil vertebrates of Mississippi,” makes the statement that her bulletin “will be used extensively by amateur and professional paleontologists.” This publication is loaded with many potential sites for fossil exploration in Mississippi. That includes all of us who are ready to explore and enjoy Beautiful Mississippi. Come on, let’s go!
With all being said, I highly recommend the W.M. Browning Cretaceous fossil park for your next Mississippi fossil excursion. Shark teeth can be found there in abundance. It is a great “starter” location for your fossil hunting “itch.” The look on your face when you find your first fossil tooth will be priceless. Google the site, start dreaming and check it out. Discover Mississippi!
Bakker, Robert T. The Dinosaur Heresies. William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1986.
Barnes, Darrell D. Brandon Chism Fossil loot from Frankstown Fossil excursion. https://youtu.be/_L5mopUaTJw . Accessed 17 February 2020.
Barnes, Darrell D. Checklist | Let’s go fossil hunting at Baldwyn/Frankstown, Mississippi!
https://youtu.be/_zpB2P9vS8o . Accessed 17 February 2020.
Barnes, Darrell D. Getting ready to go fossil shark-tooth hunting! https://youtu.be/K_Uuz3-_UKc . Accessed 17 February 2020.
Barnes, Darrell D. How to find fossil shark teeth at the Baldwin/Frankstown, MS fossil park #1. https://youtu.be/ojoU_rqjMRE . Accessed 17 February 2020.
Daly, Eleanor. A list, bibliography and index of the fossil vertebrates of Mississippi. Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, Office of Geology, 1992, Bulletin 128, https://www.mdeq.ms.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Bulletin-128.pdf . Accessed 10 February 2020.
Dockery, David. Windows into Mississippi’s geologic past. Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, Office of Geology, 1997, Circular 6, https://www.mdeq.ms.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Circular-6.pdf . Accessed 22 January 2020.
Ettensohn, Frank. “Re: The difference between calcite and phosphorite fossilization.” Message to Darrell Barnes. 24 February 2020. E-mail.
“Formation and Evolution of the Delta.” America’s Wetland Foundation, http://www.americaswetlandresources.com/background_facts/detailedstory/MississippiFormed.html . Accessed 10 February 2020.
“Fossilization-How Fossils Form.” Virtual Fossil Museum. http://www.fossilmuseum.net/fossilrecord/fossilization/fossilization.htm . Accessed 15 February 2020.
“Fossils.” Mississippi Encyclopedia, https://mississippiencyclopedia.org/entries/fossils/ . Accessed 10 February 2020.
“Fossils.” National Park Service: Vicksburg National Military Park, https://www.nps.gov/vick/learn/nature/fossils.htm . Accessed 10 February 2020.
Horner, John and James Gorman. Digging Dinosaurs. Workman Publishing Company, 1988.
Manning, Earl and David Dockery. A guide to the Frankstown vertebrate fossil locality (Upper Cretaceous), Prentiss County, Mississippi. Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, Office of Geology, 1992, Circular 4, https://www.mdeq.ms.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Circular-4.pdf . Accessed 22 January 2020.
Manning, Earl. Annotated bibliography of the geology of Mississippi to 1850. The Department of Environmental Quality, Mississippi Geology, 1999, Volume 20, Number 4, December 1999, https://www.mdeq.ms.gov/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Vol_20_4.pdf . Accessed 22 January 2020.
“Mississippi County Map with County Seat Cities.” Geoscience News and Information at Geology.com, https://geology.com/county-map/mississippi.shtml . Accessed 15 February 2020.
“Paleontology.” Science: Mississippi Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, https://www.mdwfp.com/museum/seek-study/biological-collections/paleontology/ . Accessed 10 February 2020.
Virtual Fossil Museum. Fossilization-How Fossils Form, http://www.fossilmuseum.net/fossilrecord/fossilization/fossilization.htm . Accessed 13 February 2020.