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Exploring the Fossils of Alabama USA

Updated: Mar 22

The US State of Alabama is located in the south-eastern region of the United States and is regarded as one of the most geologically diverse states in the country.

This is a landscape to explore. Visit its natural history museums to discover the fossil record stretching from the Appalachians to the Gulf Coast or connect with other amateur fossil enthusiasts and professional palaeontologists at the Alabama Paleontological Society.

Skeleton of basilosaurus cetoides, hanging from the ceiling of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History - Image by Tim Evanson
Basilosaurus cetoides, hanging from the ceiling of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History - Image by Tim Evanson

Adopted in 1984 as the Alabama State fossil the Basilosaurus cetoides is a primitive cetacean or large early carnivorous Archaeocete whale. It measured up to 18 metres and hunted sharks, fish and possibly its own species in the shallow seas along the Alabama coast between 34 to 40 million years ago during the Eocene Epoch.

Basilosaurus fossils were found along the bluffs of the Ouachita River in Alabama in 1832. Today, the fossil remains of a Basilosaurus can be found in Smith Hall at the Alabama Museum of Natural History and Sant Hall of Oceans in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Research into Basilosaurus cetoides has helped scientists understand the evolution of whales and their transition from the land into the sea.

Alabama's geology is not only diverse having been shaped by millions of years of geological activity it has also played an important role in the state's economy and history. Much of Alabama's fossil record is marine as the region was once submerged by a shallow sea.

However, several terrestrial animals and dinosaurs have been found, including a small Late Cretaceous relative of T. rex named Appalachiosaurus montgomeriensis meaning "Appalachian lizard from Montgomery", Lophorhothon hadrosaur, or duck-billed dinosaurs and ornithomimid meaning "bird mimic lizards" a theropod dinosaur with a resemblance to an ostrich. In addition, the Jurassic Period Dromaeosaurs meaning "running lizard", the herbivorous armoured Nodosauridae and Pterosaurs.

There are no Precambrian fossils known in Alabama and by the Late Cambrian the state was submerged by a warm shallow sea. During the Late Ordovician the Taconic orogeny or the first of three mountain-building episodes formed the Appalachian Mountains in eastern part of North America.

The Taconic orogeny created a mountain belt up the eastern seaboard of the United States and through erosion over the preceding millions of years during the Silurian and Devonian Periods huge amounts of sediment flowed and accumulated in low-lying marine and terrestrial basins.

Alabama has five major physiographic regions or provinces that have a particular landscape, rock type and landforms that differ significantly from that of adjacent areas. These provinces include the Central Basin, Appalachian Plateaus, Interior Low Plateaus, Valley and Ridge, Piedmont, and East Gulf Coastal Plain. Each of these physiographic regions has influenced its localised fossil record.

The Central Basin of Alabama is part of the much larger sedimentary basin known as the Appalachian Basin that extends to cover many of the eastern states of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and parts of Maryland, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Georgia and Alabama.

The Central Basin is primarily underlain by Ordovician limestones deposited in a shallow sea that covered the area at the time. The Central Basin contains significant mineral resources, including limestone, dolomite, and shale. These formations contain fossils of marine animals, such as trilobites and brachiopods.

In the north of Alabama are the two provinces. Firstly, the sandstone and shale Appalachian Plateau and the limestone of the Interior Low Plateau. The Valley and Ridge province of central and north-easter Alabama is indicative of folded and thrust-faulted sedimentary rocks. Similarly, the Piedmont province has distinct crystalline or metamorphic rocks divided by the Brevard fault zone. The East Gulf Coastal Plain is an area of very thick Mesozoic and Cenozoic sediments. The Coastal Plain region also contains significant deposits of oil and natural gas, which have played a significant role in Alabama's economy.

Fossils in Alabama are common in the limestones and shales including crinoids, blastoids, trilobites, and gastropods. Among the other significant fossiliferous deposits in Alabama is the Warrior Coal Basin.

A major feature of Alabama's fossil record is the Warrior Coal Basin. This is a sedimentary basin formed during the Pennsylvanian a subperiod of the Carboniferous Period dated between 323.2 - 298.9 million years ago. The name "Pennsylvanian" refers to the widespread coal beds of the State of Pennsylvania.

During the Pennsylvanian the area of Alabama was covered by a shallow sea that deposited thick layers of sand, silt, and organic material, which eventually formed the coal seams found in the basin today. The basin was heavily folded during tectonic activity and the rich fossiliferous coal seams are found with the synclines where the forces exerted both compressed and transformed the organic matter into coal over millions of years.

The coal seams in the Warrior Coal Basin are generally thick and continuous with fossilised treelike lycopods, trunks, branches, leaves, flowers, and roots as well as many kinds; and giant horsetails.

Among the most important fossil sites in Alabama is the Harrell Station located in what is known as the Black Belt region near Marion Junction in Dallas County. Here the exposure of Cretaceous Period marine sediment known as Mooreville Chalk is 110 m thick and since the 1940’s fossils of shark, fish, turtles, mosasaurs, birds, pterosaur, crocodile, worm, oyster, clam, bryozoan, ostracods and planktonic foraminifera and coccolithophores have been discovered.

If you are looking to explore Alabama the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail. This is a 715 Km road with 5 sections of hiking trails providing nearly 100 Km of hiking trails in 5 sections travelling through the wetlands, swamps and hardwood forest of Highland Rim Trail, Blackland Prairie, Yockanookany, Rocky Springs, and Potkopinu.

The trail follows the historic Natchez Trace Parkway, which was originally a Native American trail and later used by European explorers, traders, and settlers. The Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail is managed by the National Park Service but hikers should be aware of weather conditions and seasonal closures.

Museums to Visit in Alabama

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