An isolated dirt road in east Brantley County might not be the first place one would expect to find a world-class paleontology lab. But that is exactly what Chet Kirby has created.
The self-taught scientist has been scouring the rivers and estuaries of South Georgia for decades. Along the way he has discovered literally hundreds of thousands of fossils, dating back, in some cases, millions of years. It started back in 1969, when the Brunswick native and avid shark fisherman discovered his first major find.
“I was with my dad on the water one day. I jumped out of the boat and stepped right on a (fossilized) sand tiger shark’s tooth,” Kirby said. “It was over under the MacKay River bridge.”
Since that time, Kirby has spent countless hours scouring the area waterways for fossils and, over that time, he has collected 85,000 marine and mammal specimens and accumulated 800,000 invertebrate samples.
Kirby even brought his four children along for the ride. Chester Kirby, one of his sons, has spent most of his life finding and categorizing the fossils.
“I never got paid for doing this, but my children never got into any trouble ... and that was all the payment I needed,” the elder Kirby said.
“We didn’t have the time,” Chester, now 29, added with a laugh.
It is easy to see why. In their fossil room, there are thousands upon thousands of fossils and bones, all meticulously displayed and categorized by their Latin names in cases. The Kirby children had a lot to do with that.
“We call this the Kirby Kids’ Museum,” Chester said with a smile.
And it certainly is that. In fact, Kirby often sends samples to universities and even to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., for help in identification or to share his rare finds with scholars.
He regularly converses with academics, geologists and paleontologists about the origins of the specimens. His collection contains impressive variety of types of fossils.
“We have giant beavers, a giant lamas, whales and elephants,” Kirby said, noting that all of these animals lived in the area in various eras of prehistory. “We’ve found mastodon fossils too.”
Kirby has developed a stellar reputation for his work. In fact, that was the reason Paul Huddlestun, the former principal geologist for the state of Georgia, paid a visit to Kirby Monday. He was on hand to take a look at some of Kirby’s most intriguing finds, some that could date between 4 million and 16 million years old.
Kirby heard of Huddlestun’s work and asked to be connected with the now retired academic. He lucked out one day when he asked his contact at the Smithsonian, Dave Bohaska, if he was familiar with Huddlestun. He was; Huddlestun, who now lives in Albuquerque, N.M., had just left his office.
Soon, after 10 years of trying to find Huddlestun, Kirby was connected to him and the two were able to share their scientific passions.
It was that very thing that brought Huddlestun all the way to Brantley County Monday afternoon. He was on hand to study a sample of shells, Vasum Chipolense, that were found after dredging took place in the South Brunswick River in 2003. The specimens were deposited on Andrews Island. The problem was the fossils were much older than similar fossils and sediment found nearby. Something had either displaced very old materials or these shells simply were not that old.
“This is what the debate is right now ... the age of these fossils. It is either four, or if it is Charlton layer, they are the first specimens. If it is a Markshead, it’s the first specimens of a Markshead,” Kirby explained.
Either way, Kirby was making history by finding a sample of some of the oldest fossils in their respective categories. And while Huddlestun studied the samples, even conversing with colleagues at the University of Spartanburg at South Carolina and the University of Florida by phone, he remained puzzled. It was the fact that Kirby found the fossils in a place they do not necessarily belong. The layering of sentiment is key because it normally dictates the age of a fossil. But, in this case, all bets are off.
“I came here expecting to have an answer but they’ve kind of thrown a monkey wrench it that,” he said, scanning the fossils yet again.
“We do that a lot,” Chester Kirby said with a laugh.
“But we don’t mean to,” his father added with a chuckle.
Huddlestun was stumped primarily because the age of the fossils do not sync up with the layering in which they were found. But he believes that a sediment reef or fault line shift could be the reason.
“Chet said he found Markshead and I scratch my head because it ought not be here ... it should be about 300 feet down,” Huddlestun said. “But talking to Robert Campbell, the paleontologist, on the phone ... he assures me that the stuff is there. So it would be about 15 or 16 million years old.”
Regardless of the reason of why the fossils were found where they were, the scientific implications are significant.
“We rewrote history in Brunswick,” Kirby said with a smile.