When it comes to fossils, few are more viscerally thrilling to find—or more formidable-looking—than shark teeth.
And given that sharks continually cycle through multiple sets of their “renewable” teeth—lodged in the gums, not the jaws, shark teeth regularly break off and are speedily replaced—there’s no shortage of fossilized (and modern) specimens, needless to say.
One of the best places in the U.S. to seek fossil shark teeth is the Calvert Cliffs of Maryland, where beachcombers can find the ancient pearly whites (if you will) of a number of Miocene-vintage shark species.
So let’s talk all about everything you need to know about hunting for shark teeth in Calvert Cliffs, Maryland.
Shark teeth found in Calvert Cliffs include the most famous of all prehistoric sharks, and arguably the single most spectacular predator this big blue planet of ours has ever produced: Otodus megalodon, aka Megalodon, which makes today’s great white shark look rather like a pipsqueak. (And that’s not easy to do!) But you can also find teeth from interesting species like sandbar sharks, snaggletooth sharks, and fossilized remains of dolphins, turtles, and more!
In this article, we’ll run through the basics of fossil shark teeth in Calvert Cliffs: where they come from, what kinds of sharks are represented, and how to go about finding them.
Shark Teeth in Calvert Cliffs: The Geologic Backstory
What makes Calvert Cliffs so special when it comes to finding shark teeth and other fossils?
The Calvert Cliffs rise above the western shore of Chesapeake Bay (the largest estuary in North America, mind you), running roughly 25 miles along the eastern edge of the Calvert Peninsula between Chesapeake Beach in the north and Drum Point in the south.
In places, these light-colored sedimentary cliffs loom more than 100 feet tall. Similar formations are exposed on the eastern side of the bay in Boston Cliff, overlooking the Choptank River.
The Miocene sedimentary strata of the Calvert Cliffs represent depositions of sands, silts, clays, and marls within shallow seas, part of the Salisbury Embayment: a great tectonic downwarp that covers not only a swath of Maryland but also portions of Delaware, Virginia, and southern New Jersey.
Climatic variations resulting in shifting sea levels meant that the Salisbury Embayment was overwashed by the Atlantic Ocean multiple times during the Miocene Epoch.
Geologists call these penetrating expansions of the sea transgressions, and the opposing retreats (which are associated with dropping sea levels) regressions.
The lower sea levels of today and the action of erosion (especially by waves) and weathering has exposed a pancake stack of late-early to early-late Miocene marine deposits in the high-standing Calvert Cliffs.
The layers here include, from oldest to youngest, the Calvert Formation, the Choptank Formation, and the St. Mary’s Formation.
These formations—part of the larger geologic unit called the Chesapeake Group—have a southward dip along the Calvert Cliffs, so the older formations are more exposed the farther north you go.
The fossilized remains of hundreds of species of marine and coastal species—from molluscs and fish to turtles, crocodiles, dolphins, and whales—have been identified from the Calvert Cliffs.
Across the multiple formations, these fossil beds paint a picture of cool-temperate to warm-temperate Miocene seas with a habitat spectrum of open continental shelf to shallow bay paleoenvironments represented.
And the most abundant among the vertebrate fossils of the Calvert Cliffs are—you guessed it—the teeth of sharks.
Calvert Cliffs Prehistoric Shark Species: What Kind of Shark Teeth Can You Find?
More than a dozen genera of sharks have been recorded in the Miocene formations of the Calvert Cliffs.
The diversity of species and of tooth morphologies is spectacular.
As Bretton Kent noted in an abstract for a 2006 Calvert Marine Museum symposium, The Geology & Paleontology of Calvert Cliffs, the Miocene teeth show an important transitional phase in shark evolution from “modestly sized” Cretaceous and Paleogene species “with slender cuspletted teeth” to more modern lineages that included some genuine giants.
“These changes in tooth morphology and size through time reflect the adaptive radiation of sharks for exploiting newly evolved prey groups during the Oligocene and Miocene,” Kent wrote, “and a fundamental shift in the roles of sharks within marine communities.”
Along with shark teeth, some of the more common vertebrate fossils in the Calvert Cliffs are those of marine mammals, including a number of whales, dolphins, and a few bygone sirenians (“sea cows”), among them the prehistoric dugong Metaxytherium crataegense.
The fossilized bones of young marine mammals are common in these formations, which suggests the seas of the Salisbury Embayment may have functioned as a calving/nursery ground for some species.
Fossilized cetacean bones bearing scars from shark teeth have been found in the Calvert Cliffs, suggesting sharks—likely both actively preying on whales and dolphins and also scavenging them—may have found rich pickings in these waters.
The full spectrum of Calvert Cliffs sharks includes everything from angel sharks and thresher sharks to whale sharks. But what we’ll focus on here are a few kinds that account for some of the most commonly found or noteworthy teeth.
Regular fossil finds in the Calvert Cliffs include teeth from a number of prehistoric gray sharks—requiem sharks of the genus Carcharhinus—which have modern-day relatives that are abundant in Chesapeake Bay today, including the sandbar shark (which uses the estuary as a nursery) and the notorious bull shark.
A number of extinct members of the sand-tiger genus, Carcharias, are also represented, with their characteristically long, curved, dagger-shaped teeth.
The only surviving member of this genus, the sand tiger shark (C. taurus)—also known in other parts of its globe-spanning range as the gray nurse or raggedtooth shark—is another Chesapeake Bay resident.
Among the more intriguing Miocene sharks whose fossil teeth regularly turn in the Calvert Cliffs formations is Hemipristis serra, a much larger (up to perhaps 20 feet long) extinct relative of today’s fairly small snaggletooth shark. H. serra teeth are quite robust, heavily serrated, and curved.
Tiger Shark Relatives
Along the Calvert Cliffs shoreline, you might also find the dramatically asymmetrical and serrated teeth of extinct members of the tiger-shark genus (Galeocerdo) and the related Physogaleus contortus.
Lamnid & Megatooth Sharks
The aforementioned thresher and sand-tiger sharks belong to a large order known as the mackerel sharks, and it’s this part of the shark family tree that accounts for the most all-around impressive fossil teeth found at the Calvert Cliffs, courtesy a number of big—sometimes very big—macropredatory species likely targeting marine mammals among their prey.
These include such lamnids as Cosmopolitodus (or Carcharodon) hastalis, sometimes known as the broadtooth mako, which some scientists believe is the ancestor of today’s great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias), as well as Carcharodon subserratus, the serrated mako.
And then there’s the vanished mackerel-shark family Otodontidae, aka the megatooth sharks. These were supersized, ultra-formidable fish that included among their ranks Megalodon itself, an apex predator that may have reached a maximum length of between 50 and 65 feet and likely hunted whales among its preferred prey.
A recent discovery from North Carolina—co-written up by the Calvert Marine Museum Curator of Paleontology, Stephen Godfrey—suggests that Megalodon may have even actively preyed on the large, formidably armed macroraptorial sperm whales of the Miocene.
Megalodon went extinct some 3.6 million years ago, and the disappearance of this supreme predator among predators is thought to have had dramatic repercussions in the World Ocean.
Broad, serrated, and conical, resembling jumbo versions of modern white-shark teeth, Megalodon teeth can measure longer than seven inches, though you’d be very lucky to find such a whopper on the Calvert Cliffs beaches.
There aren’t any more coveted fossil shark teeth than Megalodon’s, and they’re certainly among the possibilities here—just don’t get your hopes up!
How & Where to Find Fossil Shark Teeth at Calvert Cliffs
Much of the Calvert Cliffs shorefront is privately owned, and furthermore the cliffs themselves are too dangerous to collect from; they’re prone to slides and collapses.
(Collecting fossils from the cliffs is outright illegal on state and federal lands, to boot.)
Nonetheless, you have a number of options for hunting fossil shark teeth on the area’s beaches, where teeth eroded out of the cliffs or from underwater deposits wash up in the surf.
Fossil-hunting spots open to the public along the Calvert Cliffs include the following fee sites:
- The county-run Breezy Point Beach (5000 Breezy Pt Rd, Chesapeake Beach, MD)
- The privately run Matoaka Beach Cabins (4510 Matoaka Ln, Saint Leonard, MD), which includes Matoaka Beach and is open to day-use visitors
- The county-run Flag Ponds Nature Park (1525 Flag Ponds Pkwy, Lusby, MD)
- Calvert Cliffs State Park (10540 H.G. Trueman Rd, Lusby, MD)
(Note that Brownie’s Beach, aka Bayfront Park, which was once open to the public for fossil-hunting and widely advertised, is now closed to everybody except residents of Chesapeake Beach.)
You’ve always got a chance of finding shark teeth along the above-listed beachfronts. But your odds improve on the heels of big storms, during which teeth and other fossils may wash out and ashore in good quantities.
Timing your hunt for low tide is best, given more beach face will be exposed. Using caution, you can also wade into the nearshore shallows to look for teeth.
Scoops and sifters are handy for fossil-hunting here, and as always you’ll want to wear sun protection and otherwise protect yourself from the elements. Beach shoes are all-around best for the activity.
Wintertime visits, of course, necessitate warmer clothing and insulated boots and/or waders.
Fossil-Collecting Tours at Calvert Cliffs & Other Resources
You may also be able to join a guided fossil-hunting tour along the Calvert Cliffs.
You could contact the Calvert Marine Museum, for example, to inquire about any field trips on offer.
Located in nearby Solomons, Maryland, this museum is the epicenter for Calvert Cliffs paleontological research and is well worth a visit for its extensive collection of shark teeth and other fossils—not to mention a 35-foot-long reconstructed Megalodon skeleton—in the Paleontology Gallery.
Another great option is Chesapeake Heritage & Paleontology Tours, run by certified Chesapeake Bay Storyteller and longtime Calvert Marine Museum volunteer Paul Murdoch.
The Calvert Cliffs are one of the paleontological treasures of the U.S., and certainly one of the best places on the East Coast to go looking for shark teeth!
Even a little fossil tooth is a treasure: a time capsule of sorts, sending your imagination back in time millions of years to an extraordinary prehistoric marine menagerie.
All rare finds aside, Calvert Cliffs is a wonderful place to visit and spend a day. Don’t forget to look up and marvel at the history of the place every now and then.
Hope this helps!