Skip to Content

College of Arts & Sciences
Maritime Research Division

Fossil whale skull illegally collected from an SC river

Paleontologist's Panel: Recent Repatriations of Unreported Fossils

By Dave Cicimurri, South Carolina State Museum

     Well, the 4th quarter of 2015 was certainly one for the books – record rainfall wrought havoc throughout the State. Levees broke, rivers and creeks rose to well above flood stage, and whole neighborhoods were inundated. As I look out at the Congaree River I can see that its banks were drastically altered, and the river is now at least 20 feet wider than it was back in September. The amount of fossil and archaeological material exposed may have significantly increased through the scouring of river bottoms and erosion of banks, and in fact FEMA archaeologists have been all over the State conducting surveys of this potential. Judging by the higher-than-average number of reports that documented recoveries for last quarter, divers took advantage of the warmer weather and altered landscapes to get into the rivers and find some pretty amazing things.

            Some of the fossils that divers collected actually fall outside the scope of things that can be collected with a hobby license, and I thought I’d dedicate this page space to talk more about these types of specimens. The hobby license allows for collecting isolated fossils like shark teeth, a mammoth tooth, a toe bone, or a rib. These fossils need to be listed on the quarterly reports in order for the State to be able to transfer ownership to the collector. The hobby license does NOT allow for the collection of shark teeth that may have belonged to one animal, a mammoth jaw with teeth in it, a toe bone that is part of a foot or whole leg, or a rib that is part of a more complete skeleton. These types of specimens are considered associated remains (a whale or horse skull would be considered an associated set of bones) and, as part of the laws related to the SC Underwater Antiquities Act, require the discoverer to apply for and receive special licenses in order for them to be collected. All fossils are scientifically important, but associated remains are more so because they can tell researchers much more about the animal they represent and the environment it lived in.

                Over the past six months the State Museum and MRD have been working together to repatriate a number of specimens like the ones described above (including whale and fish skulls). These fossils not documented on any fossil reports, and they were removed from the river bank without first obtaining the special licenses. Because they were not reported, ownership of the fossil(s) was not transferred from the State to the collector. In addition, they were illegally collected because 1) excavating is not permitted under SCUAA without the special licenses, and 2) the collector did not apply for (or receive) special licenses to collect the associated remains. In several cases the stolen State property was then illegally transported over state lines. In all of these cases the State chose to retain ownership of the fossils in question, and several museums in the southeastern US have cooperated with the State Museum and MRD to return the stolen State property.     

            As I mentioned above, associated fossil remains are important specimens, so please be sure to document them (photographs, drawings, maps) and let the State Museum and MRD know that you have found. Working together we could safely recover such a specimen and ultimately increase our knowledge of the types of animals that once inhabited the ancient forested riverbanks or ocean bottoms that are now part of our state. 


Good luck during 2016!


(Top photo: Fossil whale skull illegally collected from an SC river, SCSM)