Paleo-Interview with Paul R. Murdoch Jr.
Welcome, readers, to another Paleo-Interview installment! Today we are pleased to interview Paul R. Murdoch Jr., avocational paleontologist.
Paul R. Murdoch Jr. is an avocational paleontologist from Pennsylvania. Although he lives in PA, he spends his free-time at his summer house along the Calvert Cliffs of Maryland looking for Miocene marine fossils. He has found and donated numerous articulated cetaceans (whales and dolphins) along the cliffs and works closely with the Calvert Marine Museum Paleontologists to help with excavations. Paul is president of the Calvert Marine Museum Fossil Club, past president of the Special Friends of the Aurora Fossil Museum, and runs Chesapeake Heritage and Paleontology Tours, which provide fossil tours of the Calvert Cliffs area of Maryland. In his interview below, he shares his love of paleontology.
How did you become interested in paleontology?
I was always interested in rocks and dinosaurs as a kid. This translated to a love of the outdoors but I never outgrew my interest in fossils. In 1991 I was dating the girl I would eventually marry and one of our first overnight trips together was to Calvert Cliffs were she had spent many weeks of her summers fossil hunting with her family. One walk and I was hooked and I’m still happy to go fossil hunt any time I can!
What is your favorite type of fossil or location for fossil hunting?
My favorite place is the Calvert Cliffs of Maryland. In my opinion more of the area should have been preserved for educational and future paleontological study. Along the cliffs everyone wants to find a sharks tooth; like a big “Megalodon” or a small symphysial cowshark tooth. I’m thrilled when I find one of those; but really I am usually out looking for my next marine mammal skull. Finding a relatively complete dolphin or whale skull is always exciting to me. My favorite of these are any of the Squalodon species and I’ve been lucky enough to have found three sets of associated Squalodon remains so far.
Paul fossil hunting at the Calvert Cliffs during winter.
What was your favorite discovery or field experience?
My favorite; boy that’s hard… I’m lucky enough to have found the holotype specimen for possibly three new species of whales/dolphins that are to be named in the upcoming book by the Calvert Marine Museum. The book will update for the first time in over 100 years the marine and terrestrial mammals found there. The cool thing is all three of these specimens were found in collaboration with numerous people so each was a team effort. So… I will go with a Squalodon found in 2001 that I hope will be named as a new species. It’s bigger than Squalodon calvertensis so that’s pretty cool by itself!
Part of the jaws of a Squalodon specimen Paul found along the Calvert Cliffs.
Have you donated specimens to professional institutions or contributed to professional research? If so, explain that experience.
I’ve donated specimens to the Smithsonian, Calvert Marine Museum (CMM) and Virginia Museum of Natural History. I’ve also loaned specimens for display or assisted in funding research to the Calvert Marine Museum, Reading Public Museum, Aurora Fossil Museum, New Jersey State Museum and Louisiana State University. I have donated almost all of my best finds to the CMM and have reported 100s of specimens in the cliffs for their Paleo department to secure permission and quarry. Currently I’m pushing for a study of Squalodon teeth; hoping that the results will indicate a fourth to be determined species. I also have a dog tooth awaiting testing as a possible new species with the Pennsylvania State Museum
Paul helping excavate a cetacean specimen with the Calvert Marine Museum at the Calvert Cliffs
Is there anything else you want to tell our readers about avocational paleontology?
Over 95% of paleontologists never get to work for a museum. Those that do work for a museum spend over 90% of their time in the office; mostly on securing future funding and researching already cataloged specimens. Over 80% of the finds in all museum collections are not from these professionals, but from amateurs and volunteers. Statistically the need for avocational paleontologists is self-evident. For me, I got tired of spotting remains and waiting for the CMM to obtain permission only to see the fossil get ruined by amateurs who were probably just excited to spot something but ignorant about the laws and ways to properly go about collecting fossils and preserving them. These finds are millions of years old but are brittle and can be ruined in seconds. So in 2017, I started CHAPTours as a way to introduce and educate people who are interested in finding fossils along the Calvert Cliffs on how to legally fossil hunt. This way they can get educated not only on what to find but the when, where, and how as well as the paleontological and local history of the area. I hope that I’m able to do this for the next 30 years; as long as I’m physically able to do so.
One of the plaster jackets of a very complete Eurhinodelphis (long-snouted dolphin) specimen that Paul found along the Calvert Cliffs.
Are you an avocational paleontologist and want to connect with an international community of paleontologists? Then you might consider joining the Paleontological Society, which offers discounted memberships for amateur/avocational paleontologists. Join online here!