Most people go their whole lives without finding a shark tooth at the beach, but at Westmoreland State Park in Virginia's Northern Neck, they're a guaranteed find!
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Millions of years ago, Westmoreland County, Virginia, was underwater and a breeding ground for sharks, including mako, cow, sand, tiger, and even Megalodon, the big, bad mamma jamma! If you scoop up some sand at the water’s edge at Westmoreland State Park's "Fossil Beach" and sift through the pebbles, beach glass, and mollusk shells, you’ll quickly see a pointy, triangular-shaped shark tooth that is most likely millions of years old.
Small megalodon tooth, courtesy timescavengers.blog
Let's Get Nerdy
The oldest sediment that contains the Westmoreland State Park fossils was laid down in a shallow extension of the Atlantic Ocean about 23-25 million years ago, during the Miocene period. Younger sediments from the Pliocene (5.3-2.5 million years ago) and Pleistocene (2.5-0.01 million years ago) were laid on top of the older Miocene deposits. Altogether, these different rock and sediment layers are called the "Chesapeake Group." In the study of stratigraphy (rock layers), a group includes different rock formations, each with their own name. For example, the Miocene formations in the Chesapeake Group (at least in the Virginia portions) are called the Calvert and Eastover formations.
Westmoreland's Horse Head Cliffs, Courtesy VA Department of Conservation and Recreation
After these formations were left there, sea level dropped as glaciers on Greenland continued to expand. This allowed for rivers to flow further out into what was once a sea. Rivers are known as powerful eroding forces, wearing down rocks, and even moving large boulders. Think about the Grand Canyon: it was made by the Colorado River! The Potomac River, flowing into the Atlantic Ocean, is now eroding the Chesapeake Group formations, which are exposed cliffs and land formations, releasing all the fossils that were once contained in the rocks. This is why Westmoreland State Park's aptly named Fossil Beach is so chock-full of shark teeth and fossils!
Fossil Beach, Courtesy User Mrs Gemstone, Flickr
Besides shark teeth, some of the fossils found at Westmoreland State Park include whale teeth, vertebrae, rib bones, and ear bones; dolphin teeth, vertebrae, rib bones, and ear bones; fish vertebrae; shark vertebrae; coprolites (fossil poop); alligator teeth; and mammal teeth. Some 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, including Eobalaeonoptera harrisoni, whose cast can be found in the nearby Caroline County Visitor's Center.
E.Harrisoni cast, Courtesy Caroline County Visitor's Center
Where, When, and How Much
Just a two-hour drive from the DMV, the park is located at 145 Cliff Rd, Montross, Virginia 22520. At the entrance, ask for directions for Big Meadow Trail, which will lead you down to Fossil Beach. Maps are available for exploring the rest of the park; for an amazing view, go to Horse Head Cliffs. Low tide is the best time to visit the beach if you want to find fossils—that's when more of the shoreline will be exposed. Check here for an approximate guide to low and high tides on the day of your visit.
There is a small fee for parking, and if you want to boat, fish, or swim, there are additional nominal fees. All fees can be found here.
So pack up your shovel, sieve, and bucket, and go on down to Westmoreland State Park—you'll at least come away with a shark tooth, if not more! Have you ever found fossils at Fossil Beach? Tell us all about it in the comments!