People who swim in the Potomac or other rivers and streams near Washington don’t have to worry about shark attacks these days. But that wasn’t always the case.
Katherine and Eli Druiett, 8-year-old twins from Fredericksburg, Virginia, found evidence of the many sharks that cruised the area millions of years ago during a recent family trip to Westmoreland State Park in Montross, Virginia.
The Druietts visit this park on the Potomac River at least once each year because they know it’s a great place to hunt for shark teeth. They brought along sifters to help. Katherine and Eli dipped the sifters into the sand and let the smaller particles fall through the holes. When they got lucky, a small, three-pointed shark tooth got left behind.
Eli keeps all the teeth and other cool things he’s found at Westmoreland during past trips in a jar in his bedroom. He brought the entire collection to show his second-grade class at Hartland Elementary School.
“It’s pretty cool to find something that’s millions of years old,” said Katherine, who also goes to Hartland.
Between 5 million and 25 million years ago — a time scientists call the Miocene Epoch — much of the farmland in Virginia and Maryland was covered by water. The megalodon, the largest shark that ever lived, was among the shark species that made this area its home. A relative of the great white shark (have you seen the movie “Jaws”?), the megalodon could grow to 60 feet long — about the distance between a pitcher and a batter on a baseball field. (The name megalodon means “big-tooth.” in Greek. That’s a good name for this shark, since some of its teeth could grow to seven inches.)
Many smaller sharks also lived nearby. They are distant cousins of common modern-day species such as the mako shark and the hammerhead shark.
Paleontologists — scientists who study prehistoric life — usually have to dig deep into the ground for information about the plants and animals that lived millions of years ago. But at Westmoreland and at least one other park in Maryland, you might find the teeth just lying on the sand or an inch or two below the surface.
Unlike humans, sharks constantly grow and then lose their teeth for as long as they live. One shark can grow as many as 35,000 teeth during its lifetime. Multiply that by millions of sharks over millions of years, and that’s a lot of business for the shark tooth fairy.
Don’t bother looking for other parts of a shark’s body. Only the teeth remain because, just like your teeth, they are protected by a super-hard coating called enamel.
The best places to find shark teeth are near certain riverbeds and on beaches with tall cliffs. That’s because teeth that have long been buried beneath the sand become exposed by the river’s running water, or by erosion. (Erosion is the process of wind and rain eating away at the rock wall.)
So if you take a day trip to Westmoreland or to Calvert Cliffs State Park in Southern Maryland, you might find hard evidence of “big-tooth,” but you’re likely to come away with souvenirs from his smaller prehistoric pals.
Westmoreland State Park
145 Cliff Road, Montross, Virginia
(about 75 miles south of Washington)
Calvert Cliffs State Park
9500 H. G. Trueman Road, Lusby, Maryland
(about 50 miles southeast of Washington)