Not too long ago, Jerry Alexander was kicking around the
beach in Corolla when he stumbled across something from a long, long time ago. He found a
fossil that scientists believe could be 1.5 million years old.
The Kill Devil
Hills-based artist was looking for fulgurite, a tubular rock made when lightning strikes
sand and fuses it into a "lightning rock," as he calls it.
But what Alexander came across had a fairly recognizable shape, one most seafood lovers
would know as a blue crab.
"It's a Jimmy, and it's well done," Alexander jokes as he shows off his
The specimen is nearly complete, something that makes it rare. It weighs just less than
7 ounces and measures 5 inches from tip to tip, making it "a keeper," Alexander
The crab is basically black, hard as a rock, and between its claws and body is calcite
cement that is commonly found with fossils. Most of the legs and all of the body or
carapace is intact.
"When I found it, I didn't notice it as a crab," Alexander said. "Then I
brushed it off and said 'Voilà! What do I have here?'"
Alexander said he thought it might be a crab caught up in fulgurite, but three days
after the find, he took it to a fossil seminar held at the N.C. Aquarium on Roanoke
When visiting lecturer JoAnne Powell saw the crab, she knew it was an extremely old
fossilized specimen. Alexander says everyone's eyes opened wide.
"I went over to the aquarium and stopped the show," he said. "Right away
[he snaps his fingers] she said it could be 3 million years old. That's when man started
walking upright if you believe in that evolution stuff.
Powell, the curator of education at the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort, collects
fossils as a hobby. In geologic time, her initial estimate was relatively close, give or
take a million and a half years.
"'Fossiling' is my fun thing to do," she said. "I'm a biologist, not a
paleontologist." Powell said the specimen did excite her because it is so rare; not
many are found in the Carolinas.
She made a photo copy of the crab and sent it to Florida biologist Roger Portell, who
is a fossil crab specialist.
Based on the photo copy, he estimated that the crab was from
the Pleistocene epoch, which ranged from 10,000 to 1.6 million years ago.
It fell a
little short of the earlier estimate of 3 million years, but Portell needs to get a look
at the claws to diagnose the age properly, he said.
As the senior biological scientist for the Florida Museum of Natural History at the
University of Florida in Gainsville, Portell has seen a lot of fossils.
He has studied a large number of crab specimens, which are fairly common in Florida's
fossil record, many of them big stone crabs. He said he's studied parts of fossil crabs
that are 40 million to 45 million years old.
He's eager to see the Corolla crab because its intact.
"It's unusual to find a complete specimen," Portell said. "Most of them
are in bits and pieces. If it is a Pleistocene crab, they virtually haven't changed."
He also explained that this crab was probably rapidly buried in mud or sand, which
encased it and allowed it to be preserved while the fossilization process slowly took
Since it was covered quickly, scavengers didn't have a chance to pick it apart, Portell
added. The crab was more than likely buried beneath the ocean floor. But, it could have
simply been buried on the beach too.
Portell theorized that the fossil came into shore after storm-charged underwater
erosion uncovered it. Just from looking at the photo copy, he said he could tell the
fossil had been rolling around on the bottom for a while because it was a little beat up.
No matter how old it is, Portell would like Alexander to donate it to the Florida or
any other museum so it can be studied and put on display for everyone to enjoy.
The scientist explained that a lot of unique specimens are out there, but unfortunately
they don't always make it into scientific institutions and often end up catching dust on
"Even if it's only 10,000 years old, it's still a fossil and really neat—it's an
excellent find," he said.