Fossil Hunting On The Ashley River

by Julie Gyselinck


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Kayaks ready to launch on the Ashley River.


At a remote location along the Ashley River, about 45 minutes north of Edisto Island, Ashby Gale of Charleston Fossil Adventures hauls his kayak out of a brush-covered ravine and plops it into the water. The ripples break the smooth tension on the surface that had previously been a mirror reflection of the autumn leaves dangling above it. Casual passersby and residents are near, unsuspecting of what treasures lay beneath them. The riverbank makes steps down into the water, marking its own flood lines, a subtle reminder that it is capable of far more than a playful tumble.  On this day Ashby Gale is excited to get to a specific gravel bank a few miles downriver from the drop-in to see what the river has to reveal after Hurricane Matthew crashed through the Lowcountry just a few weeks prior. 

Ashby Gale of Charleston Fossil Adventures.

Ashby Gale of Charleston Fossil Adventures.

Picturing the gentle river we are traveling down as more than a navigable, albeit rocky, creek takes little creativity. Deposits high in the tree line from the rising hurricane waters are visible around every bend.  There is no doubt this little river has the ability to rage out of its banks with a vicious force. However, picturing the water reaching hundreds of feet deep and covering the land as a shallow sea all the way to Columbia, S.C., an hour and a half away, is a bit harder to imagine.  Clues from that time, over 30 million years ago, are scattered throughout the riverbed. Much of South Carolina would have been shallow seas and estuaries during the epochs between the dinosaurs and the Ice Age. The fossils found from this location are sea mammals, sharks, fish, amphibians and mollusks.

A shot of the riverbed of the Ashley River.

 After a meandering trip through the shallow and rocky Ashley River section, occasionally having to get out and drag our kayaks, we arrive at a bend in the river with deep water to the outside of the curve and a gravel beach on the inside. Ashby, a paleontologist who once worked for the South Carolina State Park Service, gives us a crash course in how to spot fossilized material in a field of pebbles. Immediately, he’s pointing out artifacts. Letting us look for the distinctive outlines, colors and textures that give away the treasures located in direct sight. Once our focus hones in on what we are looking for, the gravel bed we are standing on seems to be teeming with fossils.  We are plucking them from the surface of the ground faster than Ashby can turn around to identify them. Identify them he does! Nothing we pick up stops Ashby from rattling off a multisyllabic scientific name followed by a common name and description of the creature.  

Straining to find fossil’s in the Ashely River.

The two epochs of time that our fossils come from are the Oligocene, 33.9 million years to 23 million years ago, and the Miocene, 23 million years to 5.3 million years ago.  Here we are, bent over at the waist, in ankle deep water, plucking fossils out of the creek that are so old it’s almost impossible to comprehend the time span since they were alive. We fill the pockets on our little aprons with vertebrae, ray teeth, fossilized mollusk casts called steinkerns, turtle shell, an arrowhead, a few pieces of early native pottery and countless sharks’ teeth, ranging in size from a grain of rice to two inches. The varied species of shark fossils cover the spectrum of the times, except the one everyone wants to find. The massive Megalodon shark tooth, the fossil hunter’s Holy Grail. Growing upwards of 60 feet long with teeth up to seven inches tall, the Megalodon, despite its colossal size, thrived in the relatively shallow waters along the ancient South Carolina coastline. Evidence suggests they had nurseries (full of terror), to raise their pups, in the very waters that once covered Edisto and the rest of the Lowcountry.  

Showing off our fossil finds from the Ashley River.

As millions of years passed and the Ice Age freeze drew waters back, the fossil deposits changed. Each mile marks a new era of species that once roamed the earth, all the way to the shores of Edisto Beach. This is where you will find the Ice Age fossils. Bison, mammoth and even saber-toothed cat fossils have been found up and down South Carolina’s shoreline. The next time you walk the beach, keep your eye out for that smooth black surface peeping up out of the sand—you never know what it might be.

No shovels were used in the fossil trip we took with Ashby Gale and Charleston Fossil Adventures. Digging for fossils with a shovel, or any mechanical removal of artifacts, is against the law and a very naughty thing to do. For your own fossil adventure, or to plan one for a group or school demonstration, please contact Ashby Gale at Charleston Fossil Adventures.

Ashby Gale of Charleston Fossil Adventures showing off his megalodon tooth.