College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences; Public Service and Agriculture

Clemson geology museum working to uncover mysteries of 63-million-year-old crocodile


CLEMSON – You can almost hear a saber-toothed tiger roaming around in search of its next meal. A Tyrannosaurus rex gnarls its teeth as you walk by. In another room, a crocodile fossil is about to emerge from rock it has been trapped in for 63 million years.

Adam Smith, curator of Clemson's Bob Campbell Geology Museum, chips away stone that has trapped a crocodile fossil for 63 million years.
Adam Smith, curator of Clemson’s Bob Campbell Geology Museum, chips away stone that has trapped a crocodile fossil for 63 million years.

If this sounds like a step back in time, it is, sort of. Saber-toothed tigers, dinosaurs and glowing rocks are just a few displays visitors see when they visit Clemson University’s Bob Campbell Geology Museum. Adam Smith, curator, said there’s much history to be found in the museum, located on the grounds of the South Carolina Botanical Garden, 140 Discovery Lane, Clemson, SC 29634-0174. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Admission is free.

“There is so much to be seen here,” said Smith, who came to Clemson after having worked at The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. “We have awesome educational displays of rocks, minerals and fossils. Visitors can come here and learn so much about the geological aspects of our planet.”

The museum houses permanent displays, as well as special displays that are available for a limited time. The special displays are updated several times a year so there is always something new for repeat visitors to explore. In addition, new specimens are frequently added to existing displays updating information that is available.

One of the more popular displays is “Smiley,” a saber-toothed tiger skeleton. Some Clemson fans refer to Smiley as “Clemson’s Oldest Tiger.” Other paleontological displays include a complete skull of a Tyrannosarus rex, giant flightless birds and a 40 million-year old horse skeleton.

Clemson's Bob Campbell Geology Museum is home to one of the largest gem collections in the United States.
Clemson’s Bob Campbell Geology Museum is home to one of the largest fluorescent, glowing mineral collections in the United States.

The museum is also home to one of the largest collections of gemstones available in the southeastern United States, as well as the largest display of fluorescent, glowing, minerals in the southeastern United States. Visitors to the fluorescent mineral display can learn about the minerals by listening to an educational narrative by Patrick McMillan, museum director and host of SCETV’s Expeditions.

New displays soon to be available are being prepped in the Fossil Preparation Laboratory. In this laboratory, Smith and other staff members are working to prepare a 33 million-year-old turtle fossil that was collected in North Dakota, as well as the remains of a crocodile Smith believes could be about 63 million years old.

The turtle and crocodile fossils were collected when Clemson students Zach Zuber and Arthur Brown joined paleontologists from the North Dakota State Museum for a geological expedition in North Dakota during the Summer 2017 semester. Brown graduated from Clemson in 2018 with a degree in geology. Zuber, a junior biology major from Charleston, remembers the journey as if it had happened yesterday.

“My initial reactions to finding really any bone fragments during the beginning of the expedition were really just joy and amazement,” Zuber said. “Even if they were just worthless pieces of bone that could never be identified, I was still finding fossils — some of which were pieces of dinosaurs — which is something I had always dreamed about doing. As the expedition wore on and we really weren’t finding much high-quality fossils, my reaction shifted to more gratefulness and relief anytime we found something worth collecting.”

Despite the work and patience finding fossils requires, Zuber said it’s worth it.

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“Fossils are important for understanding the Earth as it is today because fossils are the key to understanding how we got to the point we’re at,” Zuber said. “The history of Earth is a story, just like a book, and we are living at the very end of what has been written so far.

“If we think about life on Earth as characters in a story, then trying to understand life today without knowing the past is like opening up a book halfway through and trying to understand who all the characters are and how they got there. It’s really difficult unless you know their backstories and there may be some very important characters you never encounter at all unless you read the beginning of the story. Fossils provide us those backstories and introduce us to those now-gone characters.

“Fossils also can tell us what the setting of the story was back then. For instance, finding a crocodile in North Dakota is a pretty strong indicator that when he was around 65 million years ago, there were swamps in North Dakota.”

In addition, the museum staff and volunteers also are hard at work chipping away centuries of stone that encase a Hadrosaur’s, or duckbilled dinosaur’s, remains believed to be about 67 million years old. These remains also were found during the North Dakota dig

“This is one of the youngest dinosaur fossils ever recovered in North America,” Smith said.

Duckbilled dinosaurs were common in the Upper Cretaceous of Europe, Asia and North America. They are called “duckbilled” because they had a flat duck-bill appearance of bones on their snouts.

Also located in the Fossil Preparation Laboratory are sediments that record a 67 million-year-old meteorite impact that hit the Earth just off the coast of Mexico and was responsible for dinosaurs becoming extinct. These sediments sit locked in a field jacket made of burlap and plaster, just waiting to be set free.

If watching fossils emerge from rock sounds interesting, Smith invites you to come to the museum. The Fossil Preparation Laboratory is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Visitors can watch a video screen for close-up views of the work area. Younger visitors can stand on a platform to get a birds-eye view of fossils being prepared.

In addition to being home to magnificent displays, the museum also hosts various events. One such event is an Earth Day celebration scheduled to take place from noon to 7 p.m., April 22, on the Botanical Garden grounds. Admission is free for this event, which features more than 20 local and state conservation organizations, food, music and activities for both children and adults. For more information, call 864.656.4600 or E-mail



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