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Evolution in the Southeast

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Notable Fossil Finds:

  • Since 1843, several primitive whales have been found along the Moodys Branch Formation in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. These whales, which averaged 45-70 feet in length, lived 35-40 million years ago. Both Mississippi and Alabama have adopted Basilosaurus whales as official state fossils.

  • In 1991, several fossilized bones and teeth from a giant ground sloth were found in Wilmington, N.C. These creatures migrated to North America from South America during the last Ice Age. They grew to 18 or 20 feet and weighed up to 3 tons.

  • A tooth from a giant white shark that lived at least 5 million years ago was found in the Hawthorne Formation near Copper River, S.C. These sharks grew to 50 feet or more in length and swam the Atlantic coastline.

  • In 1980, near Oakboro, N.C, a rare fossil from the Precambrian eon, more than 550 million years ago, was found. The two-and-a-half inch specimen is thought to be related to feather-shaped soft corals known as sea pens. It is among the oldest fossils discovered in North America.

  • In 1995, a rauisuchian reptile, an ancestor of the dinosaurs, was discovered south of Durham, N.C. The creature, a fierce predator that walked on four legs, lived about 221 million years ago.

  • A fossilized tree, thought to be about 90 million years old, was discovered near Tuscaloosa, Ala. Well preserved trees from dinosaur times are very rare in the region.

  • In 1972, a farmer in Locksburg, Ark., discovered the state's only known dinosaur fossils, thought to be a two-legged carnivorous raptor from the Cretaceous period.

  • In 1984, a fossilized carnivorous snail, known as a lettered olive, was discovered on the South Carolina coast. The creature grew to about 2.75 inches and is covered by markings that resemble hieroglyphics. Olives date to about 90,000-120,000 years ago.

Endangered Species:

Photo of Wood stork The following animal and plant species are among those listed in the federal government's register of endangered species in this region.

 Wood stork

Wood stork (bird)

  • Appearance: Large, long-legged wading birds, about four feet tall with five-foot wingspans; its feathers are generally white, and the short tail and bill are black
  • Habitat: Freshwater and brackish wetlands. Typically lives in colonies, nesting in branches of cypress or mangrove trees.
  • Threat: Loss of feeding habitat to draining and other wetlands alterations
  • Fast fact: The wood stork can snap its bill shut around fish in only 25 milliseconds, one of the fastest reflexes known in vertebrates.

Florida manatee (marine mammal)

  • Appearance: Large, with rounded brown or gray bodies and a flattened tail
  • Habitat: Coastal marine surface waters, where they feed on seagrasses; they have also adapted to freshwater and estuary habitats
  • Threat: Fishing lines and nets, flood gates, boat propellers
  • Fast fact: These "sea cows" have flexible flippers that are used for feeding, holding their calves, and even hugging other manatees.

Red-cockaded woodpecker (bird)
  • Appearance: Black on top, white on the bottom, with white-flecked sides and a white patch surrounding its eyes. Only males have tiny red patches, or cockades, on the sides of its head.
  • Habitat: Old-growth pine forests
  • Threat: Habitat loss to clear-cutting of forests; Hurricane Hugo killed 25 percent of the population in 1989
  • Fast fact: Immature males help in incubating and raising the young.

Eastern puma (land mammal)

  • Appearance: Large, unspotted, and yellowish-brown with a pale red belly. The back of its ears are blackish, and its tail is long.
  • Habitat: Wilderness area. Eastern pumas feed primarily on white-tailed deer.
  • Threat: Habitat loss to deforestation, hunting, decline in prey
  • Fast fact: This species once ranged from Canada to South Carolina, where it merged with Florida panther populations. In 1975, only three to six individuals were counted in the region.

American chaffseed (plant)

  • Appearance: Upright perennial herb with large, purplish-yellow, tubular flowers and minute hairs over its entire surface
  • Habitat: Sandy, acidic, seasonally moist/dry soils in pine flatwoods, fire-maintained savannas, and other open grass-sedge systems
  • Threat: Habitat loss to development, agriculture, fire suppression
  • Fast fact: Most surviving populations live in fire-maintained areas, such as forest management areas burned to maintain habitat for wildlife like the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.

Ring pink mussel (marine invertebrate)

  • Appearance: Shell is yellow-green to brown in color and lacks rays, and tts smooth or cloth-like surface has irregular concentric growth lines (two inches)
  • Habitat: In the gravel and sand of shallow river waters
  • Threat: Gravel dredging, channel maintenance, and commercial mussel fishing (incidental take)
  • Fast fact: None of the five known remaining populations in the U.S., including one in Tennessee, is reproducing.


The further north and inland you go in the Southeast, the further back in time you travel. Some of the region's oldest rocks and fossils can be found in its ancient mountains -- evidence of animal life 620 million years old has found in the Piedmont range.

The early Appalachians formed about 400 million years ago when what is now North America collided with Africa and Europe near the equator. Prior to this, only northernmost North America was dry, and what is now Florida was off on its own, located deep in the southern hemisphere. By 300 million years ago, inland seas had drained, the climate was warm and moist, and the Southeast was covered by lush forests. Over time, plant and animal remains transformed into the coal deposits that underlie much of the region today.

Between 225 and 65 million years ago -- the dinosaur age -- shallow seas covered much of North America's interior as well as parts of the Southeast's Coastal Plain. Few dinosaur fossils have been found in this region. Much more common from this time are marine animal fossils. Sharks, crocodiles, and long-necked reptiles called mosasaurs left their remains, as did ancient snails, clams, and sponges. The flood-prone lowlands were underwater again following the dinosaur extinction. Some of the more notable fossils, from about 40 million years ago, are bones from prehistoric whales that grew up to 70 feet long.

During the Ice Age, which began 2 million years ago, sea levels dropped. Florida, which had been submerged for 100 million years or so, was dry once again. While glaciers didn't reach this region, lots of Ice Age sediment, including bones and teeth of mastodons and horses, was deposited in the Southeast by rivers like the Mississippi.

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