Bitten But Good

Ramanessin Brook

The sun was sinking behind the trees, but I was determined to milk every last second of daylight. “Just one more gravel bar” I told myself, “Then I’ll quit”.

I dropped to my knees and hung my face a foot above the expanse of stones. The brook gurgled a few feet away, recently receded after a summer storm. Ignoring the damp seeping through my gloves I focused on the patch of ground before me. I scanned a narrow arc, then snapped my head back like a typewriter carriage as I crawled forward for another pass. On one of those whiplash returns my nose landed inches from a black cone big as the end of my thumb. My heart stopped. I had only seen them in field guides and display cases but I instantly knew what it was: a mosasaur tooth, a big one. I blinked at it a moment, then picked it up -- it was shiny as lacquer and heavy as lead. The tip was blunted, but it was otherwise intact, a ridge of carinae running like a keel along its front and back. The animal that lost it must have been several, maybe many meters long. Imagine an oversized crocodile with flippers instead of feet. I took a deep breath and relished the incongruity, that such sea monsters could be found in suburban New Jersey.


    Mosasaur tooth                  Plesiosaur tooth                    Crocodile tooth & osteoderm         

The Garden State is the most densely populated in the Union. Shopping centers and housing developments sprawl where marshes and farms once flourished. One doesn’t readily associate it with natural wonders, but they’re there: the Pine Barrens, the Delaware Water Gap, the Jersey Shore. In the mid-nineteenth century the first dinosaur skeleton found anywhere was unearthed in Haddonfield. This historic set of bones suffered a burial at sea because 70 million years ago New Jersey was underwater. Now sunk beneath fields and freeways, that primeval ocean resurfaces when backhoes aerate ancient oyster beds and streams churn prehistoric sharks' teeth from their banks.

My introduction to fossil hunting at Ramanessin Brook came the previous spring on an NYPS field trip. First we visited the Monmouth Amateur Paleontologists Society in Long Branch. Here, a local collector has turned the basement of his inconspicuous suburban home into a miniature natural history museum. Glass topped cases brim with shell, teeth and bone from the Jersey Cretaceous. He has ammonites the size of Frisbees, drawers bristling with shark teeth, a dinosaur pelvis, a mosasaur jaw and more.

                                             Ammonite segments                                                    Gastropod

Appetites duly whetted, we convoyed to nearby Holmdel. As I set my pack on the bank where we assembled I plucked an odd bit of rock from the gravel there. Corrugated back and front, its wedge shaped sides descrbed a jigsaw seam. Showing it to our guide he pronounced it two conjoined segments from an ammonite, a distant cousin of the nautilus with a similarly whorled shell. From that day I've made a habit of checking around my pack wherever I drop it. After that auspicious start I went on to sieve up a score of shark teeth, the brook’s most frequent fossils. By afternoon's end I was smitten.

Something about the site drew me: the chiaroscuro of light flickering through the trees, the murmur of the current bouncing along its pebbled bed, even the aroma of dead leaves wafting off its banks. It reminded me of the marsh fringed streams I grew up around in Connecticut. Except for the fossils.

Granted the shark teeth aren’t humongous, nothing like the six inch megalodon teeth sought down south. The average tooth size at Ramanessin is an inch or less, though it's possible to find specimens pushing 2 inches. While these Cretaceous teeth are considerably older than those Miocene giants many are astonishingly well preserved, and there is some cachet in having coexisted with dinosaurs. The variety of designs beguiled me: squat, serrated crows, trident crowned porbeagles, needle sharp sand tigers. It’s allegedly the best site for teeth of the goblin shark, Scapanorhynchus texanus. They’re the largest, most common and most variable species, morphing through a bewildering array of permutations.

And the colors! Fossil shark teeth I’ve collected elsewhere seem limited to a dull spectrum of grays and browns. The teeth of Monmouth County run through a veritable chip chart of blue, green, ochre, russet, olive, bone, yellow, eggplant and orange. This is due to the luck of their deposition, having fossilized in ground rich with multi-hued minerals that stained their enamel over eons. They are like semiprecious stones that bite, gems faceted by natural selection.

     Goblin shark teeth, Scapanorhynchus texanus.           The largest here is 1-1/2 inches.

The location also proved convenient. I live in Manhattan, I don’t own a car. So when I go fossil hunting I have to either rent, borrow or bum a ride. Holmdel is within commuting range of the city, so I researched public transportation options. I found I could take a train from Penn Station to one of several suburban stops and cab from there to the brook. The taxi was pricey, but in the end cheaper than renting a car in NYC, and the logistics gave each outing an expeditionary flavor. (This also contributed to my preference for Ramanessin over Big Brook: that more famous locality lies another fare zone further.)

Proximity fueled obsession, I found myself going down every few weeks. But I wasn’t alone. I met or heard tell of locals who tramped the length of the brook each weekend. Like a lanky guy with multiple piercings and eagle eyes who used his walking staff to grid out the gravel to survey it. Another time three gentlemen spilled off a trail onto a bank I was working. I took the opportunity to show off a big lateral goblin I’d bagged minutes before. One yelled to his elderly companion, “Hey Jerry, check out the tooth this guy found!” “Jerry” turned out to be Gerard Case, discoverer of several shark species from the region and author of the massive Pictorial Guide to Fossils. Fliers for this tome often magically appear on windshields of cars parked by Ramanessin and Big Brook.

     Crow shark teeth,  Squalicorax pristodontus, S. kaupi.   The largest is 7/8 inch.

While it was fun to swap lore and compare finds with veterans, it was more exciting to run into people new to the brook, parents and kids, and turn them on to its treasures. There were occasional instances of proverbial beginner’s luck, like the mom who asked “What’s this?” and opened her hand to reveal a sawfish spine bigger and more beautiful than any I’ve ever found.

I sometimes took friends, siblings, my godson, but often as not hunted solo. Coming from the city I relished the solitude, which also allowed me to concentrate on the search. Sometimes I camped overnight at a nearby state park and hit the brook two days running. Over months, now years, of testing my balance on treacherous tree falls and slogging through silt choked trenches I grew intimate with innumerable gravel bars and gooseneck bends. Like distant relatives seen only on holidays, I was always curious how these topographic details changed from visit to visit. Heraclitus had it down when he said you can’t step in the same river twice.

Ramanessin's fossils are plentiful enough to be a draw, but not so profuse you don’t have to work for them. One can find dozens of shark teeth in a day if you look hard enough, though most will be small or broken. I throw those scraps back in hopes of chancing on a real trophy tooth: a complete crown and root at the high end of that species' size range. One memorable day I found two perfect inch and a half long goblins mere yards from each other. But the typical visit netted humbler teeth, as well as a smattering of shark or ray vertebrae, fish teeth, snail casts, crab pincers and the rest. A few lucky times I found the teeth of giant reptiles.

    Porbeagle, or Mackerel shark teeth: Cretolamna appendiculata, Archaeolamna kopingensis

What was it about these teeth that so entranced me? Certainly their variety and beauty of design, an allure akin to butterflies or stamps I suppose. Was there something more personal? Before braces my own teeth were woefully crooked, and as a child I had nightmares about losing them. My father wore a bridge and it was slightly disturbing to watch him take it out and brush it. When I asked how he lost those teeth he teased me with tall tales of knife fights and wayward cannonballs during the war.

I was certainly less enamored of invertebrate fossils -- snail steinkerns, belemnite guards, shellfish -- which are more common at Big Brook anyway. A local once directed a friend and I to a nearby construction site whose spoil piles were peppered with softball sized oysters: Exogyras, Pycnodontes, plus little crescent bent Agerostreas. We lugged away an antediluvian raw bar's worth. Those beds are again buried, now under a housing tract. Fossils can be millions of years old, but that doesn’t mean they last forever. Once exposed, the clock starts ticking, they begin to erode and decay. Or they may simply be reburied by shifting sands. It’s an object lesson in the transience even of the ancient.


   One inch shark tooth as found on a gravel bar.                   Ammonite, Menuites portlocki.

I built a quarter inch mesh sieve, de rigueur among dedicated collectors, for sifting spadefuls of stream gravel. I also scoured Asian cookware shops for strainers to turn to the purpose and keep handy for guests. Nonetheless I have become a confirmed surface collector. I might miss out on that big reptile vertebra or shrimp encased in matrix, but I find the best preserved specimens are not compacted under pounds of gravel. It’s no secret that the tops and waterline of gravel bars, within days of a good rain, are the most fruitful places to search -- provided no one else has gotten there first. Shark teeth seem to get caught between the rocks like spinach between teeth. So I get down on my hands and knees and squint at the gravel. I’ve gotten attuned to how light glints more sharply off enamel than off wet stone, to the specific curvature of a crown, the texture of a root. Even so the profile of a sodden leaf can still send my heart racing in a premature eureka rush.  

I’ve also developed some skill at peering below the surface and spotting sunken treasure, though I'm sometimes astonished when I do. I spied my first plesiosaur tooth in a foot of water as I towered over it, plunging my hand in to grab it before the current swept it away. Likewise a shark vertebra bigger than a quarter. Crawling along shallow stretches of the stream has not only proved productive but also a pleasant way to cool off on a sweltering summer day.


   Ray vertebra & teeth, Brachyrhizodus wichitaensis         Shark vertebra, 1-1/8 in.

As summer gives way to fall I trade sandals for insulated rubber boots and gloves. Winter collecting can be really fruitful if it isn’t too cold out and I don’t spend too much time standing in the frigid stream. Spring thaw and floods promise new erosion and freshly exposed finds, so long as the water level isn't so high it submerges the gravel bars. Autumn is the most frustrating season as fallen leaves blanket the ground and clog sieves. Once I was whisking leaves off the bank and exposed a tiny baby map turtle. I re-covered him, hoping I hadn’t interrupted his hibernation.

Like hunting or fly fishing, part of the lure is the setting. What could be more pleasant than wading in the current of a cool stream or eating lunch on a sun strewn sandbank? The brook is flanked by a ribbon of dank woodland skirting small farms, housing developments and a corporate office park. Wildlife abounds in this narrow corridor. I’ve frequently spooked deer, run afoul of wild turkeys, and crossed paths with a fox. On one occasion a friend noticed eel-like creatures wriggling in the water around us. They turned out to be ammocoetes, larval lampreys whose parents had swum inland from the Atlantic to spawn. Standing knee deep in the stream another day I noticed something move out of the corner of my eye --  a big snapping turtle trundled along the river bed inches from my exposed toes. 

   Fish teeth:  Enchodus ferox            Anomoeodus phaseolus          Sawfish, Ischyrhiza mira

My closest encounter coincided with one of my most auspicious finds. It was late one summer day on a far flung stretch of the brook. I was striding along briskly when I spied something underfoot: the twin lobes of an anterior goblin root protruding from a gravel pile. They were huge, but I’d only ever found fragments of fangs that size and given up hope of finding one whole. But as I gently extracted the root some crown came after, and kept coming. I felt like Arthur pulling a miniature sword from a stone. The awl-like tooth was nearly two inches long and virtually perfect, dark red with a gracefully recurving profile, like a lick of frozen flame.

As I stood basking in my good fortune I suddenly felt eyes upon me. Level with my shoulder the bank overhung the stream a few yards away. There, curled in the droopy grass was a bedraggled fawn, it’s eyes like twin espressos fixed upon me. I expected it to wobble to its feet and spring off. But it didn’t move. We stared at each other a few minutes. I closed the space between us until I was maybe a yard away. I craned to look for cause of its immobility, sign of injury, blood, but there was nothing. I backed off with the sudden apprehension of it’s mother’s hooves exploding out of the bushes and into my face. Perhaps, as my brother suggested later, it was over confident in its camouflage, just too young to know better.

That evening was a turning point in my obsession with the brook. With that long sought trophy in hand I reckoned I’d got everything I could want from Ramanessin. I would return, but not with the same frequency or urgency. I still relish collecting in that stream, its tranquility, its fecundity. But I no longer dream about teeth.