Hunting Fossils on Padre Island



stone crab fossil found on South Padre island

Stone crab fossil found on South Padre island


© 2012 Steve Hathcock

“What caught my eye was the unusual coloring, at first I thought it was a rock,” said Lynn Pottebaum of McHenry, Illinois, as she showed me her latest find. “I remembered reading your article when you wrote about the rib bone found by Matt McClintock,” Lynn continued. “You said the best place to look for fossils was after high tide so we decided to try our luck. We drove about 6 miles past access 5 and parked along the beach. I walked about 10 feet and there it was, lying in the sand at a point about halfway between the waterline and the first set of dunes.”

At first glance I was able to identify Lynn’s find as a fossilized stone crab. The most obvious clue was the size of the claw versus the rest of the body. The final identifying mark is the splotch of white that is still found on the wrist of modern stone crabs. Geologically speaking, the shores of Padre are fairly young, placing Lynn’s fossil somewhere in the 2-3 million year range.

Modern stone crabs are shy, spending most of their time hidden in crevices or under rocks around jetties, burrowed under the shells of oyster beds and in shallow areas under the sand near the low tide mark. Crabbers handle these with care as a large crab can crush a human finger as easily as they can crush the shell of a young oyster. Adult oysters are not safe either, as the crab can easily break off pieces of its shell until it can get at the creature inside. Young crabs have a dark, purplish blue color, with a white spot on the wrist. By maturity, its colors will change to a dark reddish brown flecked with gray. The claws, which contain an abundance of sweet meat, take on a black hue and are banded with brilliant red and yellow.

I am regularly asked; “Is it true mammoth elephants once lived on Padre Island?”

Yes, The Columbian Mammoth did indeed roam this area, but that was before Padre Island (estimated to be only around 3,500 – 8,000

Mammoth Tooth found on South Padre Island Texas
Mammoth tooth found by Larry Willoughby on South Padre Island Texas

years old) was ever formed. Ancestors of the mammoth crossed over the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia, to North America over a million years ago.  After thousands of years of adaptation to the new environment, the Columbian Mammoth, largest of all the land mammals, eventually evolved. It roamed from Alaska, all the way to Central America.

 When the Wisconsin Period, last of the great Ice Ages ended around 15,000 years ago, the waters of the world’s seas were about 350 to 450 feet lower than present day levels. Rivers drained the surrounding landmass, carrying sediments fifty or more miles eastward of our present-day shoreline. Consequently, land covered what we know today as Padre Island.  

Ice Age mammals including mastodons, mammoths, native horses, camels, long horned bison, giant armadillos and equally giant sloths roamed the vast coastal prairie that stretched from Baffin Bay southward to the mouth of the Rio Grande. There were also wolves, bears and scimitar cats, distant cousins of saber tooth tigers, all of which were not above dining on an occasional human. But humans were not defenseless and the hunter could easily become the hunted. Early man was very proficient in the use of a spear-throwing device known as an atlatl. A stick equipped with a thong or socket was used to steady the butt of the spear during the throwing motion. The stone tipped projectile was four to seven feet long. It could be thrown with a high degree of accuracy. With this weapon, mammoth hunters frequently preyed upon old, injured, or very young animals using the “surround technique”. This involved trapping an animal in a bog or swampy area, then surrounding it and spearing it to death. Only one or two animals were killed at a time and the process could be extremely dangerous considering the Columbian mammoth’s size.  Standing 12 to 14 feet tall at the shoulder, the mammoth weighed some 10 to 12 tons. It reached its colossal size by eating 700 pounds of vegetation, mostly grasses, each day.

Like the modern day elephant, mammoths had only 4 teeth for chewing at any one time; 2 upper and 2 lower.  As each tooth wore down and broke apart, a new tooth would replace it.  In all, the mammoth had six separate sets of teeth over its life span.  In addition, two incisor teeth grew into long curved tusks. The longest Columbian Mammoth tusk on record, was found right here in Texas.  It measures 16 feet long and weighs 208 lbs. It is currently housed in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

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