Local fossil hunter catches Smithsonian's attention

June 18, 2009 

Linda Funk is shown with some of the fossils she's collected on The Sands beach in Port Royal and at Hunting Island State Park.

JONATHAN DYER/THE BEAUFORT GAZETTE

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.

"The ear bone is intriguing," Bohaska said. "If we can't identify it, it may mean there's a new dolphin or fossil whale out there. Sometimes they have named new species from ear bones, but that's pressing it. You may need more than an ear bone to name a new species."

Funk is hoping it's a new breed.

"Maybe they'll name it after me," she said with a laugh. "They can call it the Grand Funk."

Regardless of the fossils' importance, Funk said she felt privileged to donate the bones to the museum. In return, museum officials offered her a behind-the-scenes tour whenever she visits Washington, D.C.

Funk said she'll get there one of these days, but in the meantime plans to keep looking for more rare finds.

Many shark teeth and fossils are found at the Sands because the beach is made ofdredge spoil deposited there when the state built the channel for the Port of Port Royal, said Bob Bender, curator of the town's Lowcountry Estuarium.

Funk, 59, says her hobby keeps her limber and serves as therapy for her arthritis and Parkinson's disease.

"After the hospital, I go to spend a couple hours there and have quiet time with the Lord," she said. "It's a very calming and peaceful place."

She goes to the Sands or Hunting Island as often as she can.

"I always pray before I come," she said. "I keep a bag for myself with all my favorites. Then I keep another bag to give out to children to create awareness."

"I love these shark teeth," she added, sifting through a pile. "To me, they are like a gift from God. They're free and I'm building them up for my grandson so he'll always have them."

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