There is a wealth of prehistoric life to discover in North Carolina. The state’s unique fossil records stretch as far back as 600 million years ago! Back then, North Carolina was blanketed by murky waters, leaving behind some of the oldest large fossils we know of from animals like jellyfish and corals. Over time, the fluctuating water levels left behind marl pits across the state, rich with evidence of the state’s former inhabitants. There were also times when dinosaurs ruled the land, as well as prehistoric mammals of all shapes and sizes. Let’s take a closer look at five dinosaurs that lived in North Carolina, and where you can see fossils today!
The very first dinosaur fossil ever discovered in North Carolina belonged to Hypsibema crassicauda. It was discovered in Sampson County in 1869 by Washington Caruthers Kerr, and first described by Edward Drinker Cope. This dinosaur comes from the Late Cretaceous period, around 75 million years ago. It was an herbivore with a heavy-built body and powerful limbs. Scientists believe that it may have been able to swim as well, which would have given it greater access to food and shelter.
Gorgetosuchus pekinensis was a type of aetosaur that lived 230 million years ago. Aetosaurs are the ancestors of today’s crocodiles and lived during the Triassic period. They looked somewhat like a bulky crocodile, between 3 to 15 feet long, but with spiked armor. Gorgetosuchus pekinensis also had spikes around its neck. Unlike today’s crocs, however, aetosaurs had blunt teeth, so they were likely herbivores or omnivores. Plates from Gorgetosuchus pekinensis were found in Chatham County, North Carolina, near a brick quarry.
North Carolina’s official state fossils are the teeth of the megalodon, a super-sized shark from the Cenozoic period. We don’t truly know just how large megalodons were since only their teeth remain today. These teeth can be up to 7 inches long. The name megalodon comes from the Greek words mega and odious, meaning “giant tooth.” Based on calculations using these massive teeth, scientists suggest that this ginormous shark grew 49 to 59 feet long! That makes the megalodon not only the largest shark to have ever lived, but also the largest fish to have ever lived. Some of the best-preserved megalodon teeth in the world come from North Carolina.
Revueltosaurus olseni, a type of pekinosaurus, lived during the Triassic period. The pekinosaurus was a small dinosaur in North Carolina that looked like a crocodile, but it stood higher off the ground. Scientists estimate that it was about 3 feet long with wide, leaf-shaped teeth. The pekinosaurus was an herbivore. We still don’t know a lot about this crocodilian-looking dinosaur. So far researchers have mostly found only fossilized teeth from the pekinosaurus.
5. Grallator and Atreipus
Along the Dan River Basin near Leaksville Junction lies a mudstone quarry with some of the oldest dinosaur footprints on the east coast. These ancient dinosaur tracks in North Carolina were made by two different dinosaurs: the grallator and the atreipus. The grallator was a carnivore from the Late Triassic period. It had three toes on each foot and walked on two legs. It got its name from its long legs (grallator means “stilt walker”), and it had 4- to 8-inch-long feet. Scientists don’t know much about the atreipus. We can tell that it had three toes on its back legs and bony arms. However, we don’t know exactly what type of dinosaur it was.
Where to See Fossils in North Carolina Today
Fossils are very common in North Carolina, ranging from over 600 million years old to 10,000 years old. You can find them in museums, rivers and creeks, gravel and marl pits, and along the state’s coastal plain. Here are some of the best places to see fossils in North Carolina today:
Aurora Fossil Museum
The Aurora Fossil Museum in Aurora, North Carolina is home to many interesting Pliocene and Miocene fossils from the Nutrien Phosphate Mine. In the museum’s Shark Hall, you can find fossils from the giant megalodon. Just across the street from the museum is Fossil Park. Here you can explore the museum’s fossil pits, “Pits of the Pungo”. The phosphate mine nearby donates truckloads of fossil-rich soil to these pits. If you’re lucky, you might even find ancient shark teeth, whale bones, or even coral. And if you visit in May, you can join the museum for the annual North Carolina Fossil Festival!
Museum of Life and Science
The 84-acre Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina, has much to offer. Here you can learn about anything from dinosaurs and fossils to butterflies, aerospace, zoology, and engineering. At the museum’s Dinosaur Trail, you can see life-sized dinosaurs and even search for your own fossils on the Fossil Dig site. The Fossil Dig site is filled with phosphate dirt from a mine in Aurora, North Carolina, and contains fossils that are around 23 million to 5 million years old. In addition, there are exhibits both inside and outside the museum, including a farmyard with up-close experiences, eight tree houses, a butterfly conservatory, and a sailboat pond. The museum also participates in a Species Survival Plan for red wolves, and you can see these beautiful animals in their own exhibit here.
Fossil Fair at the Schiele Museum of Natural History
The annual Fossil Fair at the Schiele Museum of Natural History takes place each year in Gastonia, North Carolina. During the fair, you can explore the museum’s Dino Safari exhibit, see stunning collections from various fossil clubs, and enjoy other amazing activities centered on prehistoric life in the state. In addition, you can embark on a fossil-hunting expedition to unearth your own fossils, meet some incredible live animals, or buy fossils for yourself.
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
Located in downtown Raleigh, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is the largest natural history museum in the southeastern United States. It is filled with so many diverse and captivating displays that you may need to make more than just one visit! The museum is dedicated to nature and science, with seven whole floors of fascinating exhibits that span two city blocks. There is also a self-guided tour if you want to see major fossils on your own time.
In addition, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is opening a new permanent exhibit, “Dueling Dinosaurs”. This exciting exhibition and laboratory centers around one of the most incredible finds in paleontology: the complete fossils of a tyrannosaur and triceratops locked together at the time of death! You can uncover their secrets in an interactive exhibit and even watch scientists as they study these remarkable fossils up close.
Sweet Valley Ranch
The Sweet Valley Ranch in Fayetteville, North Carolina, offers five major attractions each year. Their popular summer experience is “Dinosaur World”. As you walk along its quarter-mile paved path you will see more than 50 animatronic dinosaurs spring to life around you. In addition, the ranch hosts a prehistoric museum, a fossil dig for children, and a reptile house.
Sweet Valley Ranch is just a short drive from I-95 and is the perfect balance of nature and adventure. There are over 350 animals from five different continents that live across the 300 acres of this working farm. You can see zebras, camels, Angus cows, quarter horses, macaws, peacocks, dogs, and Savanna goats. The ranch has three ponds, an exotic aviary, and a reptile house. There are also go-kart trails, ATVs, and amusement rides!
Fossil Collecting in North Carolina
In addition to museums and special collections, there are many places in North Carolina where you can hunt for and collect your own fossils! The state is famous for its tremendous number of megalodon teeth. You can find these on beaches all around North Carolina, especially when the tide rises just enough to reach shell beds. In most public areas, rivers, and beaches, you do not need a license or permit to collect fossils. However, there are exceptions to this rule, so be sure to check the laws before you head out on your fossil-hunting expedition. Here are a few places to look for fossils in North Carolina:
North Carolina’s Coastal Plain
The eastern third of North Carolina from I-95 to the coast is teeming with fossils, especially shark teeth. The best time to find them is usually after a storm, as the wind stirs up sediments and brings things to the surface. However, there is a good chance that you will have a successful fossil hunt at just about any time of the year.
Shark’s Tooth Island
For an adventure, head out to Shark’s Tooth Island, located in the middle of the Cape Fear River in Wilmington, North Carolina. This ground of small islands is a hotbed for prehistoric shark teeth, fossils, shells, and other interesting treasures that wash up along the beach. It’s also an excellent spot for a picnic, so you can bring the whole family! It’s a pretty easy trip to the island via kayak, and you can hunt along the beach for treasure when the tide is low enough.
Millions of years ago, animals, plants, and rocks all broke down into small pieces and mixed together into what we now call “marl.” Marl is a sedimentary rock containing sand, clay, nitrogen, magnesium, iron, and limestone. It can be found on many coastlines around the world that were once underwater. Most counties in North Carolina’s coastal plain have marl, and many marl and gravel pits are excellent places for fossil hunting.
You can discover all kinds of incredible things in marl pits, like different types of shark teeth, shells, whale teeth, bones, echinoids (like sand dollars and sea urchins), nautiloids (shell-bearing sea animals), and other prehistoric treasures. Probably the most popular marl pit in North Carolina is near Aurora in Beaufort County, which is famous for the massive shark teeth found there. You can also find petrified wood in counties like Northampton, Edgecombe, Johnson, and Halifax.
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