photograph by James Kegley

Fossil Hunter

A self-taught aficionado of fossilized marine life, Jason Osborne spends most weekends on the beaches flanking Maryland's hundreds of miles of inland waterways.

Cold waves lapping at his rubber-booted feet, Jason Osborne fishes into his pocket and pulls out a flathead screwdriver. Kneeling, he pushes it gently into a craggy, waist-high rock and carefully scrapes away millions of years of embedded sand to reveal the distinctive curves of an Ecphora—an extinct marine snail that inhabited Maryland's coastal waters in prehistoric times.

A screwdriver might not be the first tool that comes to mind for a paleontological dig. But for this fossil hunter, it's the tool of choice.

“It fits in my pocket and does just what I need it to,” he says.

Considering Osborne's day job, it's no wonder the screwdriver feels natural in his hand. The mechanical engineer is part of the instrument design and fabrication team at HHMI's Janelia Farm Research Campus, where he helps build imaging and electrophysiology tools for studying the brain.

Hunting Fossils

Explore the beaches of Maryland's Calvert Cliffs with Jason Osborne.
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A self-taught aficionado of fossilized marine life, Osborne spends most weekends on the beaches flanking Maryland's hundreds of miles of inland waterways. The Calvert Formation—cliffs that line the western coast of the Chesapeake Bay from mid-Maryland to southern Virginia—is a favorite spot for Osborne and other avid fossil hunters, amateur and professional.

Those cliffs contain Miocene deposits, composed of sediment laid down when the area was covered by ocean, some 10 to 23 million years ago. The cliffs periodically disgorge the remains of sea creatures preserved in sand and rock onto the beaches below. Fossils are so abundant that any beachcomber with a sharp eye can spot ancient shark teeth, mollusks, and bone fragments from marine mammals, such as sea cows and porpoises.

“Everything tells a story,” Osborne says. “You look at a rib fragment and you see the serrations and lacerations from a shark attack. It's absolutely amazing to imagine what the seas were like back then.”

Some of those shark teeth can be big—really big. In his personal collection—Osborne also donates some of his finds to museums—he has one specimen from a megatooth shark that measures 5 3/4 inches from top to bottom. He's also made larger fossil finds, including the skull and vertebrae of a baleen whale, a rare partial association of sea snake vertebrae from the Eocene epoch that he uncovered along the Potomac River last New Year's Day, and the skull of a yet-to-be-identified porpoise species that he found while diving in southern Virginia.

“There's nothing like it when you're crawling around on the bottom and you find something like that just lying on the riverbed, and you're the first person to see it and touch it,” he says. “It's a heck of a feeling.”

On this brisk midwinter day, Osborne scours the tideline for tiny tiger shark teeth and other fossil remnants. After a time, he turns his trained eye upward, to the steep cliffs rising above the beach. A glint of white catches his eye. “That might be something,” he says and reaches for his binoculars. With the powerful glasses, he can make out a flat, chalky circle with what appear to be white extensions coming out of the side. Though state laws prohibit him from climbing the unstable cliff to investigate, he plans to report the find to his friends at the Calvert Marine Museum.

“It could be a big radius [bone] but I can't imagine one that big,” he says, grinning as he lowers the binoculars. “That's cool. That's definitely cool.”