Les Lanham (UK)
Just to the east of Herne Bay in Kent, on the way to Reculver at Beltinge, there is a small area on the foreshore where fossils of shark and other fish remains can be found on a good low tide. As this is a beach location, success will depend on good, local conditions but, if favourable, a good number of fossil teeth can be found. In fact, Beltinge is one of the best areas in Britain to collect such teeth and it is not unusual to find 20 to 30 persons on the beach on very low tides. Even so, everybody there could end up with a good haul of material by the end of the day.
I have set out directions at the end of this article detailing where to start your day. From this starting point, go as far out as the tide will let you and shark teeth can be found. Indeed, the chances of finding teeth improve the further out the tide goes. Broadly speaking, the collecting area is in the section of beach between the groynes either side of the concrete steps. Here, when the tide has gone out quite a distance, there appears to be a “stream” running out to sea. This is the junction between the clay beds to the west and the shingle to the east.
When the tide is low enough, a small “island” appears in line with the stream, consisting mainly of pebbles. If you wade out to it, this can also be a good source of teeth, as collectors do not often visit the site so teeth tend to build up among the pebbles.
Further west of the collecting area is a large spit of shingle, mainly covered in mussel shells and is known locally as “the Rand”. Before bait-diggers found king rag worms burrowing under the shingle here, this was the best place to find teeth and is generally regarded as the junction of Woolwich and Reading Beds (to the east) and the Oldhaven Beds (to the west). However, once the bait-diggers started turning over the shingle, mussels took a hold and teeth could no longer be found there.
The better quality teeth are usually found in or on the clay. However, a greater number of teeth are usually found between the pebbles of the shingle to the east. Collecting is normally carried out by kneeling or bending down as low as possible and covering the beach in this manner. A pair of tweezers is almost essential to pick up the teeth, as some teeth are very small. In addition, a small pot can be used to put the teeth found into a safe place.
The shark and other fish (and reptile) remains come from what is known as the “Beltinge fish beds”. This is a section of the Woolwich and Reading series and is approximately 54 million years old. The fish bed is between 18 and 24 inches in depth but slopes about 50o east to west. Therefore, only a fairly small area is exposed but, over a long period of time, the bed will move westwards, as the covering beds erode away.
The fish bed consists of a sandy clay and is grey-green in colour, due to the presence of Glauconite. It is covered by the Thanet Sands, Oldhaven Beds and London Clay basement, and the Thanet Sands and other beds can be seen in the cliff section at the end of the promenade by “Bishopstone Glen” (a local name for the Oldhaven Gap shown on ordnance survey maps of the area).
There are teeth from about 24 species of shark, ray and other fish to be found, as well as crocodile and turtle remains. Vertebrae of shark and fish can also be found and, occasionally, fish spines turn up. In addition to animal remains, fossil wood is very common but is almost impossible to collect as it reduces to dust soon after you pick it up, especially if pyrite is present. Fossil pinecones also turn up but, in order to keep them, they must be kept in water until proper preservation can be carried out. Non-fossil materials, such as bullets and mortar bombs are also washed up on the beach but are harmless!
The most common species of shark from which teeth can be found is the sand shark, Stratiolamia macrota, and usually about 75% of one’s finds will be from this species. The teeth are easily identified by striations or grooves in the blade of the tooth.
After teeth from S Macrota, the next most abundant teeth are from the sand tiger shark, Carcharias hopei. It is easy to distinguish S macrota teeth from C hopei as the former have grooves down the length of the blade whereas the latter are smooth.
Another shark found at Beltinge is Odontaspis hopei that is very similar to S macrota but has a smooth blade. However, the most sought after teeth are the large teeth from Otodus obliquus and also teeth from Hexanchidae (cow sharks). However, Hexanchid teeth are uncommon as they break very easily. Most collectors are particularly interested in the teeth of Notidanidon sp (a six gill cow shark). However, it is extremely rare to find them unbroken and usually only pieces of them are found.
My favourite tooth is Palaehypotodus rutoti (a sand tiger shark). This tooth is smooth-bladed but it is the lateral cusps that make this so special, with up to three each side of the blade. It is fairly rare to find them complete, usually a cusp is broken or missing. However, a complete specimen is a joy to behold especially if it has “stitching” that is, cusps all along the base of the tooth (see the accompanying picture).
All other species present at Beltinge are fairly hard to find, especially crushing palates because they break up very easily.
By far the largest teeth found at Beltinge are those of a large extinct mackerel shark called Otodus obliquus. This fish was approximately 8 to 10m in length and had a diet of marine mammals, fish and probably other sharks. Many collectors think it is the probable predecessor of the modern Great White shark. O obliquus belongs to the class Chondrichthyes (as do most sharks) and ranged from 45 to 55Ma in the Paleocene and Eocene epochs. The teeth are triangular in shape with one or two cusps either side of the main blade and are very large, measuring up to four inches in length but averaging about two inches at Beltinge. Good specimens do not show up very often but many broken ones can be found. I find that one inevitably turns up almost every time I go collecting.
Of the 24 or so species of fish, ray and shark teeth that can be found at Beltinge, some are very small and are usually only found by sieving the sediments from the pebble bed and searching through the resulting shell and very small debris. Sieves of a 2mm square mesh are probably the most useful size, certainly from my experience. If you are sieving, put the debris in a container and repeat the process until you have a sizeable amount that you can search through. Take the material home, spread it out on newspaper and allow it to dry.
It is easier when the debris is dry so one can then examine it, bit-by-bit, on a shallow dish, taking out any small fossils you see. Among the finds you may come across are teeth from Squatina prima (an angel shark), Heterodontus vincenti (a Port Jackson shark), Ardiodus marriotti and Eutrichurides winkleri (types of mackerel) and also teeth from a species of monkfish. S prima teeth have a triangular base and a blade at right angles to the base. E winkleri has a long thin round tooth and A marriotti a short squat oval sectioned tooth. H vincenti has a lozenge shaped tooth.
The eagle ray, Myliobatis striatus, is common but is usually found as broken pieces, full bars or palates being fairly uncommon. The palate of the Sea Wrasse, Phyllodus toliapicus, can be found but is very rare. However, individual buttons from the palate can turn up in sieved material.
In addition to the rays, fish and sharks, pieces of Chimaeras (rat fish) are reasonably common. There are four species found at Beltinge: Elasmodus hunteri, Edaphodon bucklandi, Ischyodus dolli and Callorhyncus regulbiensis. The latter is named for nearby Reculver, Herne Bay being one place where you always find a piece.
When collecting shark teeth, it is always a good policy to put everything into your pot, as what may at first appear to be a broken piece could turn out to be something unusual and you will only find out after washing and drying your day’s finds. Remember, you can always discard anything that turns out to be rubbish. But you will not be able to retrieve anything you have thrown away by mistake.
Find Reculver Road and drive through the village of Beltinge until you approach a very sharp right-hand bend in the road. Do not follow the main road but go straight across into Reculver Drive and continue to the end of the road to a barrier where there is a car park. Leave your car here and carry on down the road onto the promenade. On the promenade, turn left heading back towards Herne Bay. As you go along the promenade, there is a set of concrete steps leading onto the shingle beach. To be sure you are at the correct area, the beach groynes to the right of the steps are marked by a timber board with “40/15” carved into it. At this point, cross the shingle to reach the lower beach, which is very much like a mudflat. This is the entry point I refer to above.