Smithsonian interested in S.C. fossil hunter's finds

The Hilton Head Island PacketJune 19, 2009 

BEAUFORT, S.C. — Linda Funk calls the glass jars of black shark teeth she keeps in her kitchen "gifts from God."

And now, a little bit of the collection she plucked from local beaches are part of her gift to the Smithsonian Institute, too. About five years ago, the Beaufort resident started collecting the fossils she found while combing The Sands beach in Port Royal and Hunting Island State Park. Her collection has grown into prized possessions of ancient sand dollars, stingray barbs, pieces of fish skulls and vertebrae, turtle shells and dolphin ear bones.

"These are our history, our past," she said. "And people don't even know they're here."

Evidently, neither did some scientists.

Last year at a fossil fair in Myrtle Beach, Funk met museum specialist David Bohaska of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History's paleobiology department. She showed him part of her collection. He asked her to donate two particularly interesting specimens – an inner ear fossil from a dolphin and a scute, or back plate, from the extinct "beautiful armadillo."

Bohaska wrote Funk in November to tell her he showed the dolphin ear fossil to researchers from Australia and New Zealand, who could not determine the dolphin's breed.

Bohaska said Thursday they are still stumped.

One of his post-doctoral fellows, Erich Fitzgerald of Melbourne, Australia, is comparing the bone to those of other fossil porpoises, Bohaska said.

If they can't determine the breed, it could mean a new species has been identified or it could indicate an area where a dolphin breed has never been found before.

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