Paleontology Exhibits

Kid Looking at Fossils
CLUES IN THE CLIFFS: PALEONTOLOGY HALL
Background and Theme
The paleontology gallery displays fossils from the Miocene epoch. That block of earth history lasted from about 23 to 5.3 million years ago. The fossils found along Calvert Cliffs are from the Miocene. For most of that epoch, global temperatures were warmer than they are today. Towards the close of the Miocene, the climate cooled - a trend that culminated in the Pleistocene epoch ice age, the most recent one with which we are all familiar. Because of evolution and extinction, only about 11% of species alive today were alive during the Miocene. To learn more about the Miocene epoch and all of the fossils on display, touch the “Time Spiral” on the touch screens located in front of the timeline mural.

Fossils
The fossil case to the left as you enter the gallery includes examples of the many ways in which the remains of organisms can become fossilized. See also the Maryland state fossil, Ecphora gardenerae, originally found in St. Mary’s County. There are more examples of local and Miocene fossils on the back wall, and more information about each type of fossil on the touch screens. Just click on the “Types of Fossils” button. If you have collected fossils from along Calvert Cliffs, use our guide to help identify your find. Those fossils, including shells, sharks’ teeth, and bones, are located on the wall opposite the recreated mural of the cliffs.

Plate Tectonics
Take a few minutes to watch the short video on the large-screen TV about plate tectonics, the birth of the Atlantic, and the formation of the Chesapeake Bay. Find out how Calvert Cliffs formed and why the Miocene epoch was vital in forming today’s landscape. Also see how erosion allows us a glimpse into the prehistoric world.

The Changing U.S.
Want to know how the shape of the United States has changed through time? You’ll find the answers on the Earth Timeline Mural. Just look for the map of the United States. You can also follow the continents as they move (known as plate tectonics) through much of Earth’s history using the “Animation” feature on the touch screens.

Mass Extinction
It wasn’t just the dinosaurs—five of the largest mass extinctions of all time are included on the “Earth Timeline.” Learn about cycles of global warming and cooling and find out what caused them. Play the “Mass Extinction” game on the touch screens. Use the information on the wall to help you. What do you think—Are we on the verge of another mass extinction?

Complexity of Fossils
Before leaving the “Earth Timeline,” note how organisms become more complex over time by noting the silhouettes of different life forms at the rim of the Timeline. Can you find the horseshoe crab and scorpion?

Sharks
You can’t miss the impressive megalodon skeleton replica, but also be sure to note that fossil remains of smaller dolphins and toothed whales are prominent in the Calvert Cliffs. Also learn about the other kinds of sharks which lived in prehistoric times, as well as their descendants with which we are familiar today.

Teeth and Death
Because sharks’ teeth are often the only evidence of their prehistoric presence on Earth, how was the whole skeleton of this extinct giant shark reconstructed? Look to the “Building the Megatooth” exhibit for answers. Find out just why we find so many sharks’ teeth in “The Science of Death” exhibit, and learn what kind of fossil evidence you might leave behind as a dead ocean dweller at the “Wheel of Fossil Fortune” dial.

The Chesapeake in the Miocene
In the “Life Along the Miocene Coast” exhibit, the animal and plant fossils on display reveal a great deal about what life was like along the Atlantic coast during the Miocene. The presence of crocodile fossils shows us that it would have been wet and warm. The closest living cousin to this extinct croc is the False Gavial of Malaysia and Indonesia!

Diversity of Whales
In the “Diversity of Whales” exhibit, see how, as you go back in time, whales increasingly resemble carnivorous, land-dwelling mammals. Why did these earliest land-dwelling ‘whales’ take to water? Think about this when you see our river otters, Bubbles and Squeak. The earliest whales were similar in body proportions and life style. Land-dwelling whales were extinct long before the Miocene.

Prep Lab
Learn how fossils are collected, prepared, and preserved in the short video. Watch the fossil preparers at work! Retired dental scalers are the tool of choice here. Feel free to ask them questions, they have a wealth of information.

Baleen Whale Skull collected at Stratford Hall, Virginia
This “field jacket” contains the skull and other bones from a 15-16 million year old baleen whale (filter feeder). The skull is about 6 feet long and was from a 25 foot whale. Periodically there will be staff/volunteers preparing the skull, basically using dental scalers and small brushes to clear away the dirt and expose the bones. There is not much to see at this time, a vertebra and rib, but as they progress more and more of the skull and upper jaws will emerge.

The whale was discovered in the cliffs along the Potomac River on the property of Stratford Hall, the ancestral home of the Lee family and birthplace of General Robert E. Lee. These cliffs are similar to those that can be seen in Calvert County at the Calvert Cliffs State Park and Flag Ponds Nature Park.

The two large lower jaws that belong to the whale are in the prep lab and are being prepared by Christa Conant. The rest of the bones collected by the museum are still in the field jackets and are being stored in Paleo Collections until they can be prepared.

If you look at the “Isabel’s Gift” whale skull that is against the wall, (background of image) located in the museum's paleontology hall, this skull is similar to that found at Stratford Hall and the whale would have looked like the drawing of a fleshed out baleen whale that is on the wall. But where “Isabel’s Gift” skull is five and a half feet long and was about 18’ long overall and 8-10 million years old, the “Stratford Hall” whale is about 25’ long and 15-16 million years old. CMM Press Release