Saving fossil whales in Virginia
About the project

Virginia’s Carmel Church Quarry is one of the richest fossil deposits in eastern North America. Past excavations at the site have recovered many thousands of Miocene-age fossils, ranging from whales to sharks, fish, turtles, crocodiles, seals, and sea cows. It also is one of just a handful of sites along the east coast that has produced land mammals from this time period.

The diversity of marine fossils at Carmel Church is incredible. So far at least 17 different species of whales have been collected, many of them including large parts of the skeleton. This was the discovery location of the 30-foot-long baleen whale Eobalaenoptera harrisoni, and at least one other whale from the site is thought to be a new species. At least 10 species from Carmel Church have never been found anywhere else in Virginia.

This diversity is even more remarkable because of where it’s located. Carmel Church is a tiny site, less than an acre, and is located further west than any other marine deposit on the middle Atlantic coast. No other site has such a high density of bones; at Carmel Church whale skeletons are literally lying on top of one another.

This high bone density is the focus of my research. What makes Carmel Church so special, that it should have a bone density that is orders of magnitude higher than other localities on the east coast? By preserving and documenting the fossils there we hope to get closer to answering that question.

Why this matters

It is rare for a vertebrate paleontologist to excavate a site with a 100% certainty of recovering fossils. Carmel Church is just such a site, giving us a very high data return on investment. However, the site is at risk due to high erosion rates and possible future development. We are attempting to save as many fossils as we can before they’re lost forever.

The Carmel Church fossils were deposited 14 million years ago, when the climate was generally much warmer than today. Since that time, there have been major changes in some parts of the marine fauna, while others have been largely unaffected. For example, nearly all the fish found at Carmel Church are species that still live in the Atlantic, while every single species of whale from Carmel Church is extinct. Documenting these ancient faunas can ultimately help us determine how ecosystems respond to climate change.

What your money can do

The funding we receive will allow us to fund an excavation team of 5 people for a two-week excavation at Carmel Church, including all of our excavation supplies. We will also be able to purchase lab supplies, such as adhesives and consolidants to help repair and preserve the bones and casting materials for making replicas of certain specimens for exhibits and educational programs. We also post daily blog updates about our excavations, and encourage schools and others to follow our progress as we make our discoveries.

While we are seeking funds for at least two weeks, with sufficient funding we can extend the excavation for an additional week or more. Past excavations suggest that we should be able to collect approximately one ton of material over three weeks, representing more that 1000 bones and teeth. We plan to hold the excavation in late summer or early fall of 2012.

Potential discoveries

Every excavation at Carmel Church has produced fossils. We always find large numbers of shark teeth, fish and turtle bones, and isolated whale bones (vertebrae, ribs, jaws). More rarely, we find whale skulls or large parts of skeletons, crocodile bones and teeth, and seal remains. Occasionally we also find bones and teeth from land animals; horses, tapirs, peccaries, and camels have all been recovered at Carmel Church.


Alton Dooley is Curator of Paleontology at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, and holds adjunct positions at Virginia Tech and Radford University. He has been working at Carmel Church more than half his life, leading the first excavations there while still an undergraduate intern with the museum more than 20 years ago. He has been an author or coauthor on more than a dozen scientific papers in paleontology. Three of these involved the descriptions of new fossil species, including Eobalaenoptera harrisoni, the first whale discovered at Carmel Church. His website, "Updates from the Paleontology Lab," is one of the longest-running geoscience blogs, and he was among the first paleontologists to post daily on-site updates from fossil excavations.

Tuesday October 02, 2012

We've completed cleaning the small dolphin neck vertebra collected last summer on our excavation at Carmel Church:

It's the smallest cetacean atlas vertebra we've ever collected at the site. So far, we have not been able to identify what species of dolphin it belongs to.

Saturday August 04, 2012

Carmel Church excavation, last day: a freaky weird bone is our last find of the trip:

Saturday August 04, 2012

Carmel Church excavation, day 12: lots of shark teeth:

Friday August 03, 2012

Carmel Church excavation, Day 11: cow shark tooth, and other bones:

Thursday August 02, 2012

Carmel Church excavation, day 10: more odontocete vertebrae:

Wednesday August 01, 2012

Carmel Church excavation, day 9: a scapula and a possible skull:

Tuesday July 31, 2012

Carmel Church excavation, Day 8: whale epiphyses and dolphin jaws:

Monday July 30, 2012

Carmel Church excavation, day 7: crocodiles, rays, a few whale bones:

Sunday July 29, 2012

Carmel Church excavation, Day 6: weird damage to a whale vertebra:

Saturday July 28, 2012

Carmel Church excavation, Day 5: more vertebrae today, from both fish and whales:

Friday July 27, 2012

Carmel Church excavation, Day 4: associated fish vertebrae:

Thursday July 26, 2012

Carmel Church excavation, day 3: more odontocete vertebrae, and our first jacket:

Tuesday July 24, 2012

Day 2 at Carmel Church was cut short because of storms, but not before we found some interesting bones:

Tuesday July 24, 2012

We've started digging!

Among the finds on the first day: some sunfish bones, a small whale vertebra, a shell fragment from a sea turtle, and a possible seed or nut from a fossil tree.


Also, rewards started going out last week. In a few cases your emails with your addresses came in after I left for the quarry, so those may take a little longer (and of course, if you didn't send me your mailing address I can't mail your reward to you!).

Thanks again, everyone, for supporting us!

Tuesday July 10, 2012

We have identified more baby whales from our past Carmel Church excavations:

Monday June 25, 2012

We have tentatively scheduled our excavation to begin on July 23. We're now going through the logistic planning necessary for the trip; at this stage, that largely involves checking our supply inventories to make sure we have enough of everything. For example, we just received orders of burlap (for making plaster field jackets) and glues (for, well, gluing).

We're going to start sending out rewards within the next 2 weeks. If you donated at the $25 or higher, and you haven't already done so, you should email me ( the mailing address where you would like to receive your reward.

In the weeks leading up to the excavation, I'll also be posting on about some of the specimens collected at Carmel Church during past excavations. Once the excavation begins, I'll be posting daily updates from the field at that site, as well as updates about our progress on Twitter (@altondooley).

Tuesday June 12, 2012

We've reached our goal!

Thanks to everyone who contributed to making this a success. I'm planning the excavation for late July or early August. Once there, I'll be posting daily progress reports at Rewards should be going out within the next month; I may need to contact some of you by email to get a mailing address.

Thanks again,

Alton Dooley

Tuesday May 29, 2012

We've discovered the skull of a baby whale at Carmel Church:

Help us search for more of "Buttercup's" skull!

Wednesday May 16, 2012

While turtle shell fragments are common at Carmel Church, bones from the rest of the skeleton have rarely been identified. That changed last Thursday, with the identification of five turtle humeri:

Wednesday May 09, 2012

Two whale jaws collected at Carmel Church on our last excavation:

The missing half of one of these jaws may still be in the ground; help us find out!

Wednesday May 02, 2012

Here are photos of some of the casts that we're considering as awards for a $250 pledge:


Tuesday April 17, 2012

Here's an example of a fossil bull ray tooth battery, which was collected at Carmel Church on our last excavation:

Complete dentitions like this are quite rare, since the individual teeth tend to fall apart when the ray dies. For some reason, Carmel Church is a prime locality for complete dentitions; so far we've found four from this genus.

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This project was successful!
$1 +
Name listed on department blog as donor
$25 +
22 BACKERS • Limited Reward (182 of 200 remaining)
Poster with a Karen Carr reconstruction of Eobalaenoptera
$100 +
6 BACKERS • Limited Reward (24 of 30 remaining)
Eobalaenoptera baseball cap
$250 +
2 BACKERS • Limited Reward (28 of 30 remaining)
Cast replica of one of the Carmel Church fossils (for example, a dolphin or shark tooth)
$1,000 +
1 BACKER • Limited Reward (9 of 10 remaining)
Cast replica of a larger Carmel Church fossil (for example, a ray dental battery or crocodile armor plate)
$2,000 +
0 BACKERS • Limited Reward (6 of 6 remaining)
An invitation to participate in the excavation for 1 week. (Participants will have to provide their own transportation to and from Virginia, must be adults, and must sign liability waivers. All specimens are retained by the Virginia Museum of Natural History. If the donor is unable to participate, they will receive one each of all the lower level awards, plus special recognition on the department blog.)
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