Fossils are any evidence of past life. They may be molds and casts, impressions, tracks, or pollen, to name a few. The study of fossils is the science of paleontology, which is subdivided into many different areas of study. Paleobotanists study fossil plants. Invertebrate and vertebrate paleontologists study fossil animals. Many other lines of study exist, such as paleoclimatology, taphonomy, and paleoecology. Within the confines of South Carolina all of these disciplines, and many others related to the study of paleontology, are useful for understanding the fossil record of the state.
The oldest fossils known from South Carolina are from the early Paleozoic era, from a time period termed the Cambrian period, and are about five hundred million years old. Some species called trilobites have been collected from several sites near Batesburg. Trilobites are the oldest extinct group of aquatic arthropods known and are most closely related to modern-day crustaceans and insects.
The Mesozoic era, “the Age of Reptiles,” is present in South Carolina but is limited to only a few sites in the eastern part of the state. Dinosaur remains have been collected from several sites in the Kingstree and Florence areas. Several species of carnivorous dinosaurs and herbivorous duck-billed dinosaurs have been identified, based on teeth and toe bones that are, in some cases, distinctive. Other fossils of this age from the state include mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, ammonites, and a large array of other marine species that lived at the same time. Most of the Mesozoic fossils from the state are from the late Cretaceous period, about seventy to sixty-six million years ago.
The Cenozoic era, sometimes called “the Age of Mammals,” encompasses the last sixty-five million years. In terms of fossils, it is the most completely represented period in South Carolina prehistory. Fossils have been collected from all of the major time periods of the era, but some time periods are better understood than others are. The latest time period, the Pleistocene epoch, “the Ice Ages,” is the youngest and best studied and understood. This was the time of mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, and bison with horns seven feet from tip to tip, in addition to the many species still alive today, including modern snakes and turtles. Many of South Carolina’s clay, sand, and limestone layers, termed “strata,” are of marine origin, so many of the fossils from the state represent marine organisms. Some of the earliest North American whales are known from the middle and late Eocene epoch of South Carolina. Archaic mysticete whales, precursors of modern-day baleen whales, are found in the state, along with early toothed whales, or odontocetes. Much of the evolutionary history of whales will be written based on research conducted on fossils collected and studied in South Carolina. Presently more than four hundred species of fossil vertebrates are known from South Carolina, and the list will continue to grow as new site discoveries and study of more fossil materials are undertaken.