Fossil Spotlight – Walrus in South Carolina?
By Dave Cicimurri, SCSM
When I talk to groups about the extinct animals that lived in South Carolina, it seems to be common knowledge that giant ground sloths and mammoths roamed the land, and that giant sharks hunted in the coastal waters. What’s usually a surprise to those groups is that animals like dinosaurs, lions, and cheetahs also lived in SC. When I eventually mention that walruses lived along SC’s shores, there are mostly sounds and motions that indicate disbelief. That disbelief vanishes when I show off a fossil walrus tusk that was found in South Carolina.
Paleontologists have known that walruses once inhabited SC’s coastal areas for more than 120 years, and walrus fossils have been found from New Jersey to at least as far south as SC. In fact, two different types of walrus have been identified from the southeastern US, including an extinct species called Ontocetus. The other walrus has been identified as the same species that we’ve all seen in TV documentaries, Odobenus rosmarus.
What can we learn about ancient environments from the SC walrus fossils? Well, we know that modern walrus (or walruses, or walri, depending on who you talk to) inhabit very cold, Arctic regions. Perhaps it was cold enough that walrus expanded their range well to the south from the far northern areas of the globe. Alternatively, maybe those animals were more tolerant of warm temperatures. It is difficult to say for certain because many of the walrus fossils that have been discovered were collected from river bottoms, and their original context is therefore unknown. Context, as in the original sediment that the fossil was in, is important because we can better determine the original environment that the sediment accumulated in. However, even though the context may be lost, those fossils lying on the bottom of the river or on the beach can still tell us a lot about ancient South Carolina. These types of fossils that have greatly expanded our knowledge of what used to live in SC - which we now know includes musk ox, giant terror birds, and walrus.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Alan Devier and Matty Swilp for their role in uncovering SC’s fossil history, and for their recent donations of partial walrus tusks to the SC State Museum.