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Local shells could be over 20 million years old

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The new book “Molluscan Paleontology of the Chesapeake Miocene” includes references to Middlesex County.
by Larry S. Chowning

Shell fossils along the shores of Urbanna Creek are receiving national attention through a recently published book, “Molluscan Paleontology of the Chesapeake Miocene.”

Author Edward J. Petuch wrote in his introduction that the “coastal plains area of Maryland and Virginia, encompassing the Chesapeake Bay and . . . tidewater river systems, have long been known to contain some of the richest and best-preserved fossil shell beds found in the United States.”

The shell animals were alive in the Miocene Era, which was between 5-23 million years BC. Petuch wrote that the Miocene was a time of wildly fluctuating climates in the Chesapeake Bay area. The Tortonian Age (10 million years BC) was warm and subtropical, while the late Serravallian Age (12 million years ago) was extremely cold. 

“This is reflected in the patterns of rapid evolution and extinction that are beautifully preserved in the fossil record of the Chesapeake Miocene and makes the area one of the great natural wonders of the eastern United States,” he wrote.

Petuch said 20 million years ago Urbanna and most of Middlesex was in the middle of a huge body of water called the Calvert Sea, and shells from that period can be found today along the river and creek banks throughout the county.

There were islands in the sea, and the area around Bayport in the western end of the county was an island. Most of the land in what is now Middlesex County was under water.
Large ocean scallop and other variety of shells have been found in the banks of Urbanna Creek and the Rappahannock River.

When discovered in 1929, a shell was named Carolinapecten urbannaensis after the Town of Urbanna.

In 1936, the scallop shell Chesapecten middlesexensis was discovered and named for Middlesex County.

Wendell C. Mansfield was with the U.S. geological survey stationed at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D. C. when he came to Urbanna Creek and found these new species.

Petuch has been coming to Urbanna for the last two years digging in the banks along the creek and discovered some new shell species. He has named some of the shells for local residents.

Urbanna town mayor Beatrice Taylor, and local residents Bonnie and Jim Vautrot have shells named for them. They have helped provide a boat for Petuch and encouraged him to continue his search.

“I think it’s neat that I’ve got a shell named after me,” said Taylor. 

When Taylor learned it was a parasite shell that drills holes in other shells and eats them, she said with a laugh, “You named a mean shell after me.”

Petuch said he’s the third paleontologist to come to Urbanna Creek to study the area’s fossil beds, and each of the three have found new species in the creek banks. Petuch has found and named 12 new species from the Urbanna site.

posted 11.18.2009

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