Scientist seeks answers to mystery at dig site

March 18, 2011

By ELIZA WINSTON - Bulletin Staff Writer

A local scientist is working to discover why thousands of animals chose to make one area their final resting ground more than 14 million years ago.

Dr. Alton Dooley, associate curator of paleontology of Virginia Museum of Natural History, recently returned from an excavation at the Carmel Church site in Caroline County, Va. He has been visiting the site for two decades, and he and other scientists have excavated about 4,000 square feet and found thousands of specimens there.

Dooley said he usually goes to the Carmel Church site four to five times a year to dig for about a week. He returned from a trip last week, where he was helped by several college students on their spring break.

The students excavated fossils from a site that would have been underwater 14 million years ago, Dooley said. The area they were excavating was discovered in 1990 and contains thousands of species of animals from the ocean, land and sky, he said.

The site is privately owned, and access is provided by Martin Marrietta Materials, said Dooley.

Dooley began excavations there in 1991. Since then, he has identified the fossilized remains of at least 17 species of

whales and dolphins, at least 12 different species of fish and many sharks.

In addition to animals that lived in the ocean, Dooley has identified several species of land animals and birds. Although the site would have been underwater, Dooley said the land animals may have been washed out to sea after they died.

The birds that were identified at the site also may have been washed out to sea or they might have been flying over the ocean at their time of death, said Dooley. He added that one species identified at the Carmel Church site, the pelagornithid, spent much of its time over the ocean.

During his most recent excavation at Carmel Church, the end of an arm bone from a pelagornithid was discovered. When Dooley held up the arm bone of a goose to the fossilized bone fragment of the pelagornithid, it was apparent how large this bird would have been.

He said the pelagornithid probably was the largest bird to ever live. Its wingspan was about 20 feet, which is twice as large as the largest flying bird today, the albatross, said Dooley.

He added that like the albatross, the pelagornithid spent much of its time flying over the ocean. But unlike the albatross, the pelagornithid had a beak with jagged edges that made it appear to have sharp teeth, said Dooley.

Although the pelagornithid was an extremely large bird, not all of the animals living 14 million years ago were bigger than modern species, said Dooley. The largest whale found at the site was about 30 feet long, which is small by modern standards, he said.

But he said the real challenge is not just excavating and processing the fossils. It is figuring out why the bodies of so many different species ended up so close together.

“This is a very unique site. We have an incredible number of species,” said Dooley.

He added that so far, he and other researchers have determined only what did not bring so many different species together. For example, he thought it might be a whale calving area, but the whale bones are mostly adult and not all the same species.

Also, it isn’t the result of a large tsunami, he said. Researchers previously thought the skeletons of so many different species might have been carried to the Carmel Church site during a tsunami, but a tsunami expert dispelled that theory, Dooley said.

He also knows that whatever caused the skeletons to end up in the same location, it wasn’t the result of one event because the animals didn’t all die on the same day. The time in between deaths ranges between months and thousands of years, he said.

So the excavations and investigation go on.

“Probably we have enough stuff still in the ground there (at the Carmel Church site) to last the next 10 to 20 years,” said Dooley.

For now, Dooley will continue to excavate the area. Others who are interested in participating in upcoming digs can find more information at


Select News Year: