For alum Aaron Alford, fossil hunting is much more than a hobby

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Image credit: Lisa Shires

On a thin and rocky stretch of beach beneath a towering expanse of the Calvert Cliffs in southern Maryland, Aaron Alford pauses to pick up what looks like a black rock but is actually a piece of shark poop, 12 to 15 million years old. He smiles as if he'd just uncovered a gemstone. Most humans would have walked over the nondescript fossilized excrement, but the 40-year-old Alford, SPH '08 (PhD), has a preternatural eye when it comes to the remains—and fossilized feces—of long-dead fauna. He also can't resist a science lesson. "I don't mean to be crude, but if you look at a turd, you can see the rings of the intestine on it. See the nice little wrinkles there?" he says, before bagging the specimen. "Awesome stuff, right?"

Alford organized this summer morning excursion to show me what his off-days are like and how rewarding this stretch of shore can be for a fossil hunter like him. Dressed in khaki shorts and a nautical blue button-down shirt, Alford looks like Paul Rudd portraying an earnest nature guide. Like the actor, Alford possesses a doe-eyed and cheery-faced youthfulness. But Alford's no fumbling comic, especially on a fossil hunt. On this day, before and after the shark droppings, Alford would discover the ribs of a Miocene-epoch whale sticking out of the cliffs, the centrum of a 12-million-year-old adult whale vertebra, and a handful of ancient mako and snaggletooth shark teeth. While not dismissing the plunder's significance or cool factor, Alford says his real prey rests 30 feet or so out in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, a five-foot whale skull that might be intact, half submerged in the choppy waters and trapped in a concretion formed when the calcium from ancient sea life concentrated into calcite. A colleague spotted the specimen at low tide, and Alford is keen to excavate the several-hundred-pound formation using some proprietary tools he is developing. But there's no guarantee the fossil will be suitable for exhibit in a museum. The unexposed portion of the skull might be damaged. Or the species could turn out to be of the garden-variety sort that already crowds archive shelves. None of that deters Alford. "It's out there just waiting for us," he says. "This could be nothing, or it could be wildly interesting. We don't know. But I want to find out."

He's lost count of how many bones he's uncovered, although he guesses more than 100,000, including some from rare marine and animal life.

Let's get one thing out of the way. Alford is not a paleontologist, at least not the academically certified version. A psychiatric epidemiologist by training, he has spent the past seven years analyzing data and scientific methods, most recently as director of research and evaluation at the National Network of Public Health Institutes, a nonprofit association committed to improving public health through innovation. Exploring cliffs, shorelines, and blackwater rivers up and down the East Coast in search of fossils is Alford's hobby.

He's lost count of how many bones he's uncovered, although he guesses more than 100,000, including some from rare marine and animal life. He located the first evidence in Virginia of extinct protocetid whales, precursors to modern whales that walked and gave birth on land. He's found baleen whale fossils from the lower portion of the Calvert formation that predate any known specimens by nearly 5 million years. He was part of a team that discovered and described two extinct seal species, and a species of ghost shark he uncovered has been named after him, Callorhinchus alfordi. Some of his favorite discoveries never walked or swam, including a collection of Civil War–era bullets that soldiers used as sinkers to fish along the shoreline and a fossilized 60-million-year-old coconut from the time Maryland resembled the Bahamas in vegetation and climate. "I love that coconut," he says. "It's just so weird and random." He keeps some of his smaller treasures but donates the lion's share to museums for research purposes and to schools as teaching aids. He lent some finds to the Smithsonian. Most are on display or stored in archives at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Maryland.

Not one to hog all the fun, Alford has co-founded two citizen science organizations focused on paleontology, to inspire a love of science and discovery in others and to foster a militia of young fossil hunters. "Part of why I'm doing this is to help tell the story of this time long ago," he says. "To find out how one species evolved or split off into another species, and how one set of critters came into being. But to do that you need a detailed fossil record and a density of information. It can't be just me or a handful of people doing the work; you need many to comb and sift through what we find."

Alford grew up in an "empty town" of 18 in rural Grant County, Kentucky, located halfway between Lexington and Cincinnati. His father was a telecommunications technician and later executive, and his mother was a homemaker for him and his three younger sisters. He describes his family as middle class but they literally lived off the land. "We hunted and fished, and we ate what we caught and what we grew. Ours was a religious household and we were [taught] to respect everything, which included valuing the outdoors as a way of life," he says. "I remember freezers full of deer meat." Alford had thousands of acres to play in and traces his interest in paleontology to the stone walls he would come across that were chock full of fossils from an ancient ocean floor. "I'd start digging in between these rocks, open some up and find sea shells and think, This doesn't seem quite right in the middle of Kentucky."

In middle school, he became interested in medicine, which led him to major in health promotion at the University of Kentucky. He would go on to earn a Master of Public Health in epidemiology from George Washington University and a PhD in mental health from the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Alford refers to himself as a psychiatric epidemiologist by training and a research methodologist by profession. He specializes in evaluation methods, with interests in risk factors associated with substance abuse and anti-social behavior. Before joining the National Network of Public Health Institutes, he worked for six years as a health research scientist at the Center for Analytics and Public Health at the Battelle Memorial Institute, an applied science and technology development company headquartered in Columbus, Ohio.

Alford says his paleontological hobby started in 2001, on a commute to classes at Johns Hopkins' medical campus in East Baltimore from his home in McLean, Virginia. Crawling through traffic, he had ample time for contemplation and started to think about ways he could relieve the pressure of graduate school. He had competed in marathons and triathlons in his 20s, but running and working out were no longer cutting it. He had recently watched a video on fossil hunting and now thought, Why not? He researched good nearby spots and opted to poke around a beach on the northern tip of the Calvert Cliffs, massive rock faces that dominate the shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay for roughly 24 miles in Calvert County. They were formed over 10 to 20 million years ago when a warm, shallow sea covered all of southern Maryland. When the sea receded, the cliffs were exposed and began eroding. Today, these multishaded rock walls, each layer representing a different time period, reveal the remains of prehistoric species including sharks, whales, rays, tree sloths, and monstrous seabirds with 20-foot wingspans. More than 600 species of fossils from the Miocene epoch have been identified in the cliffs. "Just think, this was all ocean bottom at one point," Alford says, pointing up to the cliffs. "Each one of those rings is a layer in time, representing different ocean environments. This area gives us unique access to fossils, as you have a chance to see the story unfold. So on my first trip, I just went down to one of the beaches down there and ran into some folks doing just what I was looking to do. Before too long, I find out there is this whole amateur paleontology community out there."

"What sets Aaron apart from other amateur scientists is that he's so careful documenting where all his discoveries come from. Context is everything."
Bretton Kent

Around this time, Alford met kindred spirit Jason Osborne, a machinist by day who in his spare time liked to hunt for fossils. The pair would go on to co-found Paleo Quest, a nonprofit organization with the mission to advance paleontology and geology through material contributions to museum collections, field exploration, publication, and the advancement of science, technology, engineering, and math education. The organization aims to promote citizen science, establish a coalition of researchers to work on large-scale projects, and increase the number of fossil specimens from the Atlantic coastal plain housed in museum collections. "Jason and I were collectors, but from the onset we always wanted more," Alford says. "We wanted to be more efficient, find more interesting things, and fill in the gaps of what museums wanted. That's why we started Paleo Quest. You can do more with more."

The two would later co-found SharkFinder, a STEM education program run through a National Geographic Society affiliate called JASON Learning, aimed at finding fossilized shark, skate, and ray remains in the Atlantic coastal plain of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The SharkFinder program allows K–12 students and amateur scientists to search through highly concentrated fossil-bearing media to find, sort, and report shark fossils, which are then sent to the lab of Bretton Kent in the Department of Entomology at the University of Maryland, College Park, to examine and publish any findings. Many of the fossils are minuscule, including microteeth no bigger than a grain of sand. All participating schools are acknowledged in the resulting professional publication, and anyone who finds distinctive fossils is acknowledged by name. After publication, the fossils are donated to the Calvert Marine Museum.

Kent says that SharkFinder, which has enlisted the participation of thousands of elementary and middle school students from the mid-Atlantic area, has helped increase the number of known Miocene-epoch shark and ray species from 16 to 31. "It has helped us pull back the curtain on that whole fossil record, and we've been able to see an explosive diversification in shark and ray species from that time period," says Kent, who credits Alford's involvement. "What sets Aaron apart from other amateur scientists is that he's so careful documenting where all his discoveries come from. Context is everything." Scientists need to know, Kent adds, whether a fossil was found at a certain spot on Bed 1 in the Calvert formation, for example, as they can then narrow down how many years ago this creature was swimming in the ocean. "Aaron has a very high level of expertise when it comes to this stuff, and he's very good at the systematic aspects of [paleontology]," Kent says.

Credit should also be given to the participating students, says Alford, who serves as a host researcher for JASON Learning, doing paid public speaking and serving as the organization's ambassador to school superintendents and corporate leaders to promote STEM education.

"I love talking in front of kids, bringing all these old bones and my scuba gear. It's not hard to get their interest by bringing in shark teeth or shark poop. But if you can actually have them do the science, and then reap the rewards? Then they're hooked. I love watching that light go on."

Sean Smith, the chief operating officer of JASON Learning, says that Alford has a special set of talents and is equally adept at the science and communicating its wonders. "Aaron is great at switching gears depending on the audience he's talking to," says Smith, who has known Alford for more than four years. "He has this infectious enthusiasm and clearly connects with others on what is possible. And he gets people nerded out, like we are, by the idea of citizen science."

Smith says Alford also has a fearlessness and a restless inner drive. "He's put quite a bit of work into this 'hobby' of his," Smith says. "I don't know how he does it all. He's somehow been able to find an extra 24 hours in a day that's been hiding from everyone else."

When talking about his fossil-hunting exploits, Alford prefers to refer to himself as a "pro-am." He's self-taught, amassing his knowledge from books, online sources, experts, and other amateurs—but mostly by doing. The work carries its share of inherent risks, particularly the underwater fossil hunting he does in murky blackwater rivers, the slow-moving channels that flow through forested swamps and wetlands in the southern United States. These waters can be full of snakes, bull sharks, underwater caves, alligators, ornery catfish the size of dogs, and twisted nests of cypress roots that can snag even an expert diver and affect currents that bounce him around and leave him disoriented. "The work I do in these places is dangerous," he says. "It's prohibitive and keeps most other people out. But you end up finding stuff you can't find anywhere else. You trade risk for opportunity, and I like risks, or should I say, controlling risks." His gear is designed for self-rescue. On a routine dive, he'll outfit himself with the three breathing devices, line cutters, multiple knives, and a set of lights. Everything is rigged in such a way that he can quickly eject the gear and rocket to the surface. "I go over my rig again and again before I head down into water, and I always bring a buddy."

There was the time he hadn't connected a hose properly and realized his air supply was dangerously low. This particular blackwater was thick as pudding, and he came up slower than usual, like through quicksand. Alford says his heart rate skyrocketed, and for a couple of seconds he thought he would not reach the surface. He managed to fix the hose connection by touch while still buried in the muck, and then swam up to reach safety. "That day taught me a good lesson. I was scared, but I didn't panic. When you're scuba diving, it's easy to get claustrophobic and it doesn't take much to push you over the edge. People have literally drowned themselves just from the fear. I knew this, so in my head I was like, 'Don't kill yourself.'" Alford has also nearly been hit by falling cliff rocks on several occasions, been impaled by a garden hoe, dealt with hypothermia more times than he cares to share, been poisoned by bad tank air, and come face-to-face with a catfish that could swallow his head. He's had that head kicked by fellow divers and has more cuts than he can count from tripping and falling over rocks and shells.

"I love talking in front of kids, bringing all these old bones and my scuba gear. If you can actually have them do the science, and then reap the rewards? Then they're hooked. I love watching that light go on."
Aaron Alford

Stephen Godfrey, curator of paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum and a frequent fossil-hunting partner, says one of his favorite Alford stories is the whistle pig incident. Alford and John Nance, the assistant curator of paleontology at the museum, were fossil hunting on a tiny beach on the Potomac River one hot day, and Alford found himself caught in a snarl of trees while crawling through a cutout in the cliffs. He heard a screeching noise just before an adolescent groundhog scrambled out of the notch and jumped at him. "This groundhog is screaming bloody murder and I'm tangled, and John is running back into the water," says Alford, reveling in the story. Godfrey interjects. "The part of the story he's leaving out is that all the screeching and screaming was coming from him, not the groundhog."

Alford admits he's gotten more careful and cautious with age. He recently remarried, turned 40, and is now trying to start a family. "That has changed my perspective a bit," he says. "I don't dive anymore in the winter and early spring. I have gone out in those conditions, but that is risky—bordering on suicidal—being in that deep freeze with all the other dangers present."

Aaron Alford discovers a fossilized shark's tooth

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Alford is vague when referring to his hunting sites. One section of river he's working on now, with a trove of marine species (whales, dolphins, seals, walruses, and large fish of various kinds), is "near Richmond." A five-foot whale skull is just out in the water somewhere. Even when he publishes findings, he often uses code numbers to refer to exact locations. "If another scientist needs to know exactly where, I can give them the key to the code. Otherwise, I don't want people to know where all this stuff is." Alford says he doesn't advertise his sites because he worries about fossil pirates, people who are less interested in science than in claiming a prize for their mantle. Some of these people do more harm than good, he says, damaging fossils in their eagerness to extract, often breaking off a piece and leaving the rest behind. They also put themselves and a cluster of fossils at risk, as they might cause a landslide or otherwise disrupt the surrounding area. Nance says that most amateur fossil hunters are well-intentioned, responsible collectors who are in it for the love of science. "But there's a handful of people who will go out and ruin it for everyone else. They will mess stuff up," he says. And when it's gone, it's gone.

Alford says he's seen people stalk his boats when he's out hunting, so they can come back after he's left and plunder a site. "They take a screwdriver to skulls just to rip some teeth out. Stupid stuff like that," he says. "They just want a piece, a prize, and they don't care about the ramifications."

His brand of paleontology is a race against time. Get the fossils before the pirates get them, or nature destroys them or sweeps the remnants to harder-to-reach places. To speed the process, Alford has created a set of modified tools, including a pneumatic, scuba tank–powered drill that can delicately make short work of cutting through thick, hard rock on a cliffside and even underwater. He's also developing a new type of field jacket, a casting material that can set quickly underwater in order to protect larger specimens as they're being excavated and transported. He's hesitant to give away too many details about the equipment, since he plans to document their use and publish his techniques in scientific papers. He's currently testing the new tools and hopes to use them this summer or fall for extracting that massive whale skull from the Chesapeake Bay floor.

The stumbling blocks are time and money. Finding time for his hobby is not as easy as it used to be. Earlier this year, he severed ties with Paleo Quest and SharkFinder, partly due to a difference in philosophy but mostly so he could free himself up for new challenges. His expeditions are paid for mostly out-of-pocket and with money from speaking engagements. "The rest I beg, borrow, and steal for, and I partner with a dive shop that sponsors some of my work. I get by. I'm not independently wealthy. It's science on a shoestring, really. I like to say, 'If research is not either sexy or for medicine, getting funding is hard.'" The trip to recover the whale skull will truly challenge Alford's ingenuity, as it will require new techniques, many man-hours, and multiple people using boats not much bigger than the 14-foot inflatable Zodiac he uses now for his water-based work. "The idea is to make the methods accessible to the typical underfunded paleo department or group," he says.

So this particular fossil will remain stuck off shore. He's hoping nobody gets to it before then. Alford has dibs.

Greg Rienzi, A&S '02 (MA), is the magazine's contributing writer.