Yes, Virginia, there is a state fossil

Published 9:04 pm Tuesday, October 14, 2014

By Susan and Biff Andrews

Virginians know the cardinal is the state bird and the dogwood blossom is the state flower, but did you know that we have a state fossil? Well, we do, and today — National Fossil Day — is the perfect time to examine it.

Chesapecten Jeffersonius, a pelecyphod (bivalve) — in this case, a very large scallop shell — was the first North American fossil to be described and illustrated in scientific literature by Martin Lister in 1687. But, Lister did not give it a name. It is named for the Chesapeake Bay.

Email newsletter signup

They typically have 9-12 “ribs” on the shell, which distinguishes them from other fossil scallops. They are the index fossil for the Lower Yorktown Formation. Index fossils are ones that are used to define periods of geologic time, in this case the Early Pliocene about 4.5 million years ago.

Chesapecten Jeffersonius and a number of other marine fossils are part of the unique geology of our Virginia Coastal Plain, which is a terraced landscape along the coast, extending from the fall zone near Richmond, eastward to the Atlantic Ocean.

The landscape was formed over the last few million years as sea level rose and fell because of repeated melting and growth of large continental glaciers.

The outcrops of sandy cliffs along the banks of the James River offer an abundance of fossils from strata of varying geologic periods, with names such as the Bacon’s Castle Formation, Yorktown Formation and Eastover Formation.

For the most part, areas where these fossils are found are remote, accessible only by boat and requiring local knowledge of back creeks and isolated beaches.

However, the fossils protrude from the cliffs and litter the beach at Chippokes State Park, located on the James River in Surry County. The beach is an easy walk, and it is possible to find bits of fossilized whale bone and sharks’ teeth, including megalodon teeth, on the shore and in the water.

Turn your attention to those shores and you will become a time traveler on a beach walk like no other.

When arriving at Chippokes State Park, go directly to the Visitors Center, where there is ample parking. There you can see exhibits containing examples of the fossils you will be looking for. Visitor center employees are very knowledgeable and will direct you to the beach area where you can see the fossils.

Remember this is a state park, so there are regulations against collecting anything. The park is open from dawn to dusk, so make a day of it. There are many other facilities —picnic areas, a camping area, bike trails, a large swimming pool and more — in addition to the agricultural exhibits.

To get to the park head west on Route 10 and turn at the intersection with Route 634 (Alliance Road). The park entrance is four miles on the left. The address is 695 Chippokes Park Road, Surry.

Virginians, get out there and meet your state fossil!

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at