The shattered skulls of at least three ancient dolphins are mixed up on a table in a cramped workroom at the College of Charleston. Some days, the puzzle of bones confounds Suzanne Grantham.
Multiple specimens have been crushed and jumbled by eons of shifting earth. Now it is up to the students and retirees volunteering their time in the college laboratory to sift through the fragments and piece them together with a tube of Paleo-Bond glue.
"Sometimes I can go days without finding anything, and other days I'll find a ton. And then it's back to nothing," said Grantham, a junior geology major at the college.
In the quiet hours under harsh white light, Grantham and generations of students before her have learned the hard lessons of paleontology: The work can be tedious, sweaty and janitorial. From sunburned days in the field collecting samples to the hours of lab work that go into identifying a single blackened shard of bone, the labor never ends.
The tang of vinegar hangs in the air of the fossil assembly room thanks to an open vat of acetic acid, which is slowly dissolving the concretion from another specimen. Adjunct lecturer Bobby Boessenecker is not certain what the fossil is yet — it's only been dissolving since July — but he believes it is "a new kind of toothed whale."
As for the dolphin skulls, Boessenecker can't say for sure what they are either. They came to the lab courtesy of a man who recently died without leaving a clear record of where he found the rocks that contained the fossils. This puzzle is an especially vexing one.
"It's like somebody took two puzzles, threw away half the puzzle pieces, and then mixed the remaining pieces together — and there's no picture on the outside of the box — and a lot of the puzzle pieces have also been ripped in half," Boessenecker said.
Whatever species they turn out to be, the dolphin fossils are sure to find a place in the college's drawers or public displays. C of C has a world-renowned collection of fossils, and the scientists there specialize in marine mammals from the Oligocene epoch, which spans from about 33.9 million to 23 million years ago.
The college came by that specialty naturally. Thanks to some unique soil conditions and historic sea level patterns that reached as far inland as Columbia, the South Carolina Lowcountry is a bountiful site for marine fossil diggers. Construction sites in North Charleston and Ladson have yielded some paleontological treasures, and amateur fossil hunters have found fist-sized megalodon teeth in suburban creek beds.
"A lot of the time, museums end up not focusing so much on the local natural history heritage, and they're like, 'Oh, let's bring in a T. Rex from Wyoming!' Well, that doesn't really have much to do with Charleston or even South Carolina in general. So we try to focus on the stuff that is relevant to here and was found here," Boessenecker said.
The public displays at the college's Mace Brown Museum of Natural History feature many local finds, including some evolutionary oddities Boessenecker affectionately refers to as "early weirdos." A series of fossils from various species spanning millions of years shows the slow, awkward transition from legs to flippers. A fossil of a waipatiid dolphin suspended in mid-air features menacing, front-facing teeth that look like spikes or tusks. One toothless dolphin bears the name Inermorostrum xenops — Boessenecker's own coinage — which roughly translates to "strange face with weaponless snout."
And in the main exhibit hall, after surveying otherworldly fossils from South Carolina's own natural history, visitors can peek through a plate glass window and see students, retirees and other volunteers taking turns at the fossil preparation table, testing their patience with the latest puzzle.