Martha's Vineyard Atlas of LifeSpecies Lists“Island Life” Introduction and EssaysIsland Life: Fossil Record

Island Life: Fossil Record


Fossil Record

The cliffs at Gay Head are almost unique in that two ancient and one relatively recent archeological horizon that lie deep underground elsewhere throughout southeastern New England are found at the surface. They have been the subject of scientific curiosity for over a century. However, most of the detailed work done on the deposits there was done by the end of the 1930s. By that time or shortly thereafter, fossil deposits in other places such as the Dakotas were discovered and offered more exciting possibilities to paleontologists. The most important publication about fossils found on the island, and many other aspects of the island’s geology, is that of Woodworth and Wigglesworth (1934). All recent writers (cf. Chamberlin, 1964; Oldale 1992) rely heavily on this work. We have found little other than several papers on the prehistory of the island’s vegetation (Ogden, 1958, 1959, 1961; Miller and Robison, 1972, 1975; Robison and Miller, 1975; Miller 1977a, 1977b; Robison 1977; Tiffney 1977; Fredericksen, 1982, 1984) that has been published since.

As noted in the chapter on Geological History, the area where the island is today did not remotely resemble the climate or physical appearance of the landscape that existed when the fossils that have been found in the Gay Head cliffs were deposited. The area was not an island at all at those times. The nature of the fossils found suggests the type of habitats that existed. In addition, the clay beds in which the fossils have been found were moved here by the glacier. They were originally laid down perhaps as much as 20 to 50 miles from where they are today. However, similar clay strata are thought to lie deep under the glacial deposits that form the island today.

The older of the two major fossil-bearing strata on the island, which is found primarily at Gay Head but also at a few other sites, is believed to have been deposited in the Upper or Late Cretaceous period, the most recent period of the Mesozoic Era, between 75 and 100 million years ago. These strata vary in appearance: “mostly variegated clay [and] a thin layer of relatively pure low-grade coal called lignite” (Oldale, 1992:27). Especially the lignite bed “ . . . has a high content of terrestrial plant fossils including leaves, pine cones, flowers and seeds” (Oldale, 1992:29). As mentioned in the Geological History chapter, the Cretaceous fossils indicate a habitat of streams, lakes, swamps, marshes and a seashore bay.

The following plants have been identified from the Upper Cretaceous deposits. The data given here are simply repeated from Woodworth and Wigglesworth (1934:155-157) and are based on work done by Hollick (1906). However, as pointed out by Dr. Bruce Tiffney (pers. comm.), an expert on fossil plants, there has been virtually no work done on the Gay Head fossil plant flora since the 1930s. He notes that most of the taxa listed here “…are assigned to modern genera, which is just plain wrong. Indeed, even the implied family relationships are likely wrong in most cases.” In the absence of proper taxonomic nomenclature for these plants, all we can do now is list them as published and hope that a revision and correction is published that can be included in a future edition of this book. Only species for which both generic and specific epithets have been provided are listed here:  

Gleichenia protagaea Deb. and Etts.

Thyrsopteris grevilloides (Heer)

Onoclea inquirenda (Hollick)

Marsilea Andersoni Hollick

Sagenopteris variabilis (Vel.) Vel.?

Czekanowskia dichotoma (Heer) Heer?

Baiera grandis Heer?

Dammara borealis Heer

Cunninghamites elegans (Corda) Endl.

Sequoia ambigua Heer

Sequoia Reichenbachi (Gein.) Heer

Sequoia fastigiata (Sternb.) Heer?

Sequoia gracilis Heer?

Sequoia concinna Heer

Widdringtonites Reichii (Etts.) Heer

Widdringtonites subtilis Heer

Widdringtonites fasciculatus n. sp.

Frenclopsis Hoheneggeri (Etts.) Schenk?

Juniperus hypnoides Heer

Populus stygia Heer?

Salix membranacca Newb.

Salix Meeki Newb.

Salix protcaefolia Lesq.?

Jugulans arctica Heer

Jugulans crassipes Heer

Jugulans elongata n. sp.

Planera betuloides n. sp.

Ficus myricoides Hollick

Ficus atavina Heer

Ficus Krausiana Heer

Ficus sapindifolia Hollick

Protcoides daphnogenoides Heer

Dryandroides quereinca Vel.

Banksites saportanus Vel.

Nelumbo Kempii (Hollick) Hollick

Menispermites acutilobus Lesq.?

Cocculus cinnamomeus Vel.

Cocculites imperfectus n. sp.

Cocculites inquirendus n. sp.

Magnolia speciosa Heer

Magnolia tenuifolia Lesq.

Magnolia pseudoacuminata Lesq.

Magnolia amplifolia Heer

Magnolia Lacocama Lesq.

Magnolia auriculata Newb.

Liriodendron attenuatum n. sp.

Liriodendropsis angustifolia Newb.

Liriodendropsis constricta (Ward) var.

Liriodendropsis simplex (Newb.) Newb.

Liriodendropsis spectabilis n. sp.

Cuatteria cretacca n. sp.

Cinnamomum Heerii Lesq.?

Persca Leconteana (Lesq.) Lesq.

Nectandra imperfecta n. sp.

Sassafras acutilobum Lesq.

Sassafras angustilobum n. sp.

Sassafras cretaccum Newb.?

Sassafras hastatum Newb.?

Laurus nebrascensis (Lesq.) Lesq.

Laurus teliformis Lesq.

Amelanchier Whitei n. sp.

Hymenaca dakotana Lesq.

Hymenaca primigenia Sap.

Colutea primordialis Heer

Dalbergia minor n. sp.

Dalbergia irregularis n. sp.

Leguminosites coronilloides Heer

Leguminosites conrulutus Lesq.?

Hex papillosa Lesq.

Celastrophyllum grandifolium Newb.?

Gyminda primordialis n. sp.

Elacodendron strictum n. sp.

Paliurus ovalis Dawson

Zizyphus groenlandicus Heer

Ceanothus constrictus n. sp.

Sterculia pre-labrusca n. sp.

Sterculia Snowii Lesq.

Eucalyptus? angustifolia Newb.

Eucalyptus Geinitza (Heer) Heer

Eucalyptus Schubleri (Heer)? n. comb.

Eucalyptus latifolia n. sp.

Hedera simplex n. sp.

Aralia groenlandica Heer

Aralia rarniana Heer

Aralia coriacea Vel.

Panax cretacea Heer

Andromeda Parlatorii Herr

Myrsine borealis Herr

Diospyros primacva Heer

Dispyros apiculata Lesq.?

Diospyros provecta Vel.

Periploca cretacea n. sp.

Premnophyllum trigonum Vel.

Williamsonia problematica (Newb.) Ward

Strobilites perplexus n. sp.

Tricarpellites striatus Newb.

Tricalycites major Hollick

Trycalicites papyraccus Newb.

Calycites obovatus n. sp.

Carpolithus floribundus Newb.

Carpolithus hirsutus Newb.

The only other Cretaceous epoch plants described from the island since Hollick (1906) that we have found are a primitive pine named Prepinus viticetensis (Jeffrey, 1910), two pines called Pinus triphylla and Pinus quinquefolia (Robison, 1977), a dicoyledonous angiosperm flower (Tiffney, 1977), two pine-like plants called Pityostrobus kayei and Pseudoaraucaria arnoldii (Robison, 1977), two primitive pines called Prepinus statenensis and P. viticetensis (Robison and Miller, 1975), and another pine-like species called Picea glauca (Miller and Robison, 1972).

The only evidence of a fossil insect ever discovered on Martha’s Vineyard is the egg of a Noctuid moth thought to be about 75 million years old (Gall and Tiffney 1983). This family of moths is still represented on the island to this day by more than 500 species.

The Cretaceous strata also include fossils of over 20 species of mollusks from a moderately shallow bay. Several species have been identified only to the generic level, and the identifications of many are tentative as marked (by “?”) by Woodworth and Wigglesworth (1934). It is interesting that representatives of five genera found as fossils appear in the list of present-day species known from the island. The species found are:

Gastropods – Limpets and Snails; Univalves:

Ceritium sp.?, a Cerith Shell

Turritella sp.? (Nerina type), a Worm Shell

Turritella sp.? (non-Nerina type), a Worm Shell

Chemnitzia (Turbonilla) sp.?, an Odostome Shell

Pelecypods – Clams, Oysters, Scallops, etc.; Bivalves:

Modiolus sp.?, a Mussel

Pecten sp.?, cf. P. argillensis Conrad , a Scallop

Anomia argentaria Morton ?, a Jingle Shell

Paranomia scabra (Morton), a Jingle Shell

Ostrea sp.? , an Oyster

Exogyna ponderosa Roemer?, an Oyster

Pteria sp.?, an Oyster

Plicatula sp.?, a Kitten’s Paw shell type

Lucina sp.?, a Lucina Shell

Cardium sp.?, a Cockle Shell

Nuculana sp.?, a Yoldia Shell

Tellina (Lincaria)? – a Tellin Shell

Camptonectes burlingtonensis Gabb., a Scallop

Camptonectes parvus Whitfield (?), a Scallop 

Corbula sp.? cf. C. carolinensis Conrad, a Basket Clam    

The younger of the two major fossil-bearing strata, which occurs only at Gay Head, was deposited in the middle of the Miocene epoch, the last and most recent epoch of the Tertiary period, which extended from about 5 to about 24 million years ago. There are two types of strata containing Miocene fossils: relatively fine sand containing abundant glauconite, a green mineral, thus called “greensand,” and a coarser sand geologists have named “osseous conglomerate,” which is a looser white sand that contains fossil bones. Four phyla of organisms and one plant have been identified in these two strata, mostly from the greensand. The type of habitat indicated by the fossils present is a coastal one with a moderately shallow ocean or estuary some of the time, deeper water for large sharks and whales at other times, and dry land at yet other times. Early in the Miocene period, the land habitat was rich subtropical forest, and later in that period became relatively cool temperate forest (Fredericksen, 1984). 

Few plants have been identified from the Miocene deposits on the island. A species of pine named Pinus burtii (Miller, 1978) was discovered by island resident Richard Burt in the greensand at the Gay Head cliffs. A pine (Pinus), an oak (Quercus), and a moss (Sphagnum) were reported by Frederiksen (1982), and petrified pine cones (Pinus) were reported by Miller (1977a, 1977b). 

Twenty-two species of mollusks have been identified, all from the greensand, six only to the generic level. The scientific names are given here just as presented in Woodworth and Wigglesworth (1934) and the English names have been added by us.    

 Gastropods – Limpets and Snails, Univalves:    

 Acmaea sp.?, a Plate Limpet

Euspira ? sp. ?, a Moon Shell

Nassa trivitattoides, a Mud Snail

Chrysodomus (cf. C. liratus Martin), a Neptune Shell

Chrysodomus sp?, probably C. stonei Pilsbry, a Neptune Shell

Pelecypods – Clams, Oysters, Scallops, etc.; Bivalves: 

Arca sp? (like A. ponderosa Say), an Ark Shell 

Modiolaria laevigata Gray , a Mussel

Pecten sp.? (cf. P. irradians Lam.), a Scallop

Pecten magellanicus Gmelin, a Scallop

Lucina sp.?, a Lucina Shell

Cardium virginianum? Conrad, a Cockle Shell

Nucula shaleri Dall, a Nut Clam

Yoldia limatula Say, a Yoldia Shell

Venus (Gemma) purpurata Lea, a Quahog (Venus Clam)

Venus mortoni, a Quahog (Venus Clam)

Venus mercenaria L., the Northern Quahog (Venus Clam)

Macrocallista ? sp.?, a Clam

Macoma lyelli Dall, a Tellin Shell

Angulus sp.?, a Tellin Shell

Solen solen (fragment), a Razor Clam

Mya sp.?, probably M. arenaria L., Soft-shell Clam

Panopea goldfussi Wagner, a Soft-shell Clam

Only three crustaceans that we know of have been identified from the Miocene greensand:

Balanus concavis Brown, a Barnacle

Archaeoplax signifera Stimpson, a Crab [see Stimpson, 1863 and Cushman, 1905]

Cancer proavitus Packard, a Crab [see Packard, 1900]

The teeth of four fish have been found in Miocene deposits, primarily in the osseous conglomerate. All are from extinct sharks that have only been identified to the generic level:

Carcharodon, possibly of the species megalodon, an extinct giant shark in the same genus as the Great White Shark alive today;

Otodus, possibly of the species obliquus, an extinct giant Mackerel Shark;

Galeocerdo, an extinct Tiger Shark;

Hemipristis, an extinct Snaggletooth Shark.

The mammal fauna found fossilized in the Miocene sand is indicative of the subtropical climate that prevailed here for much of that epoch. All but two of the species are marine animals, some identified only to the general group to which they belong. 

Diceratherium, an extinct Rhinoceros (molar found)

Gomphotherium, possibly of the species productum, a primitive type of Mastodon (tooth found)

At least one species of seal (tooth found)

A type of walrus (rib found), possibly of an extinct species

A type of sea cow (Sirenian), probably an extinct species

A type of porpoise (Delphinid – lumbar vertebra found)

Graphiodon vinearius, probably an extinct toothed whale

Squalodon atlanticus, an extinct carnivorous whale (vertebra and humerus found)

Dinoziphus carolinensis, an extinct toothed whale

Physeter macrocephalus Linn., an extinct type of Sperm Whale

Balaenoptera sursiplana, an extinct species of rorqual, a baleen whale

Ontocetus sp.?, a member of an extinct genus of baleen whales

Small deposits of strata from the last and shortest of the epochs of the Tertiary period, the Pliocene epoch which extended from about 3 to about 5 million years ago, have also been found at Gay Head. To date, only fossil mollusks have been found in these strata, also indicating a moderately shallow marine environment, probably near a coast. As reported by Woodworth and Wigglesworth (1934), the mollusks are:  

Gastropods – Limpets, Snails, etc.; Univalves:

Purpura lapillus L. – a Snail from which purple dye has been made

Pelecypods – Clams, Oysters, Scallops, etc.; Bivalves:

Venericardia borealis Conrad – a Cardita Shell still present today

Nucula shaleri Dall Var.? – a Nut Clam 

Astarte castanea Say – an Astarte Shell still present today

Macoma lyelli Dall ? – a Tellin Shell 

Corbicula densata Conrad – a Basket Clam

Spisula polynyma Stm. – a Surf Clam still present today

The Quaternary period began about 3 million years ago and includes the Pleistocene and the Holocene, or Recent, epochs. The Pleistocene epoch is thought to have lasted from about 3 million years ago until about 25,000 years ago. There are relatively few Pleistocene deposits on the island in comparison to deposits from earlier periods, but one mollusk, Musculus nigra, Black Mussel, has been identified from them; the same species is still present today. Two species of mammals have been identified from fossilized bones found in Pleistocene sand deposits at Gay Head. At first these mammal bones were thought to have come from a Miocene deposit, but later work determined that they came from an adjacent Pleistocene bed instead. The habitat here in this period thus must have been both dry land, probably open savannah, and ocean coastline.

Equus sp.?, a primitive horse (astragalus = ankle bone found)

A primitive type of camel (metacarpal bone found), an extinct species 


Cushman, J. A. 1905. Fossil crabs of Gay Head Miocene. American Naturalist, 39:281-390.

Fredericksen, N. O. 1982. Stratigraphic, paleoclimatic, and paleobiogeographic significance of Tertiary sporomorphs from Massachusetts. U. S. Geological Survey Professional Paper P 1308, U. S. Geological Survey, Reston, VA, 25 pp.

Gall, L. F. and Tiffney, B. H. 1983. A fossil Noctuid moth egg from the Late Cretaceous of eastern North America. Science  219:507-509.

Hollick, A. 1906. Fossil plants of Martha’s Vineyard. U. S. Geological Survey Monograph #50.

Jeffrey, E. C. 1910. A new Prepinus from Martha’s Vineyard, Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History  34(10):333-338.

Kaye, C.A. and F. C. Whitmore Jr., C. E. Ray, and R. W. Purdy. 1979. Vertebrate faunas of Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. U. S. Geological Survey Professional Paper P 1150. Geological Survey 1979, U. S. Geological Survey, Reston VA.

McWeeney, L. 1999. Analysis of charred botanical remains for the Lucy Vincent site, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Ms. in possession of the author. 

—————–  2000. Additional charcoal identification for the Lucy Vincent site, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Ms. in possession of the author.

Miller, C. N. Jr. 1977a. A petrified seed cone of Pinus from the Miocene of Martha’s Vineyard Island, Massachusetts. Miscellaneous Series Publication – Botanical Society of America, Vol. 154, p. 40.

——————  1977b. A petrified Pinus cone from the Miocene of Martha’s Vineyard Island, Massachusetts. Geological Society of America Abstracts 9(6):749.

——————  1978. Pinus burtii, a new species of petrified cone from the Miocene of Martha’s Vineyard. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 105(2):93-97.

——————- and C. R. Robison. 1972. Two types of lignitized cones of the Pinaceae from the Late Cretaceous of Martha’s Vineyard Island, Massachusetts. American Journal of Botany 59(6, Part 2):662.

—————————————— 1975. Two new species of structurally preserved pinaceous cones from the Late Cretaceous of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Journal of Paleontology 49(1):139-150. 

Packard, A. S. 1900. A new fossil crab from the Miocene green sand bed of Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard, with remarks on the phenology of the genus Cancer. Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 26:1-9.

Stimpson, W. 1863. On the fossil crab of Gay Head. Boston Journal of Natural History, 583-589.