A woman was picking up trash along an Assateague Island beach when she spotted a strange object with "an interesting shape." After bringing the item to experts for inspection, it has since been identified as a fossilized crab claw, likely from the Pleistocene Epoch.
The Pleistocene Epoch, commonly known as the "last Ice Age," spanned from 2.6 million years ago to 11,700 years ago. With much of the planet covered in glaciers, Earth's wildlife at the time looked different: wooly mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and mastodons are all creatures of the Pleistocene.
However, the epoch also saw several life forms whose descendants we know and love today. "Birds flourished during this period, including members of the duck, geese, hawk and eagle families," noted Live Science. "Crocodiles, lizards, turtles, pythons and other reptiles also thrived during this period."
Crabs and other crustaceans, meanwhile, have been around since long before the Pleistocene. According to Live Science, "the first crabs appeared around 200 million years ago in the early Jurassic period, and experienced a renaissance in the Cretaceous period, an event now known as the Cretaceous crab revolution."
The prehistoric crab leg found at Assateague Island was discovered by Sharon Conn in early October, reported Delmarva Now. Conn had been "picking up trash and rescuing upside down horseshoe crabs" at the time, added Assateague Island National Seashore in a statement last week.
On her walk, she "came along an item with an interesting shape she hadn't seen before," which looked to her "as though it had teeth and an eye socket." Unable to identify the object herself, Conn reached out to the Smithsonian for help.
From there, a paleontologist from the Smithsonian's Department of Paleobiology identified the odd finding as a prehistoric crab leg.
"My colleague and I are quite certain that your specimen is a fossil crab claw. Given the nature of other fossils found in your area the fossil is likely Pleistocene in age (2 million to 12 thousand years ago)," said the paleontologist, per Assateague Island National Seashore's statement.
"The extra rock around it is a very well consolidated matrix that was so hard it didn't readily erode. The claw did erode a bit though – which is why it isn't immediately distinguishable as a claw. The tips are gone and parts of the infilled area where the original flesh would have been has shown through, making the whole specimen look a bit odd," they added.
Because fossils found on public land are protected by the 2009 Paleontological Resources Preservation Act, Conn returned the claw to Assateague Island National Seashore.
"It is very uncommon to find fossils of this nature. We have a very small number in our museum collection," said Liz Davis, chief of interpretation and education for the agency, in a statement to Delmarva Now. "That is what makes this discovery very exciting!"
Newsweek has reached out to Assateague Island National Seashore for additional comment.