walrus tusk

Sarah Boessenecker, collection manager for the Mace Brown Museum at the College of Charleston, discovered that a walrus tusk found near Ridgeville is only half as old as other walrus fossils that have been found on the East Coast. Provided 

The idea startles a lot of people that walruses swam the South Carolina ocean in the past. The tusk that Sarah Boessenecker identified surprised paleontologists.

The big tooth from an extinct animal, found in a quarry near Ridgeville, is younger than any other walrus fossils of the same type found anywhere in the world. In the world of fossils, that's big stuff.

"One of the things about understanding life on this planet is you need data points of space and time," said Tom Demere, paleontology curator at the San Diego Natural History Museum, who specializes in walrus fossils.

Boessenecker's tooth helps close a gap in evolutionary time between the more extinct species and more modern walruses, he said.

Maybe even more remarkable is that Boessenecker didn't have to go far to make the discovery. She is the collections manager at the Mace Brown Museum at the College of Charleston. The fossil is one she handles all the time. 

She began focusing on the tusk while studying giant beaver and snaggletooth shark fossils from the same quarry, working with her husband, Robert Boessenecker, a professor at the college.

The tooth just looked too good to be as old as it was supposed to be.

"It was so complete," she said. "We took a closer look at it."

The walrus, beaver and shark were all found in the 1990s in the same layer of soil. The tusk is younger than 2 million years and from a time when Ridgeville was the coast.

It's also not often realized that the coastline now near Charleston, at one time, was as far out to sea as today's Bulls Scarp, about 50 miles off, and at one time as far inland as Columbia. In other words, the museum on Calhoun Street where the fossil is on display was once under water.

"Finding out that a fossil that you’ve seen in your museum every day is actually the youngest specimen worldwide of a walrus that lived in the Lowcountry is part of what makes paleontology so cool," Boessenecker said.

Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.