By James "Zach" Zacharias, Senior Curator of Education and History
One of the great aspects of studying fossils is that it is the story of past life on Earth. If it were not for the science of paleontology, we would know nothing of the tyrannosaur rex, the wooly mammoth, the giant ground sloth, or other past life on Earth. Paleontology is an important and complex science made up of roughly 25 other sciences combined into one. Biology, geology, chemistry, and mathematics are just some of the sciences that are involved in this field - and yet, you do not have to be a professional to enjoy the rewarding hobby of fossil collecting.
Amateur fossil collectors have always helped to bridge the gap between academic paleontologists and the public. The Museum's very own giant ground sloth skeleton was discovered and collected by an amateur paleontologist. The discovery of "Sue the T. rex," the most complete skeleton ever found which now resides at The Field Museum in Chicago was also made by an amateur paleontologist.
With all the movies, documentaries, and museum displays highlighting fossil life on Earth, it is not hard to see why fossil collecting is a popular subject loved by people of all ages. Extinct animals like the mastodon, glyptodont, and dinosaurs stir our imaginations because of their mysterious and exotic natures. The knowledge of these extinct animals through the collection of fossils is an excellent vehicle to take us on a journey back in time. The unique anatomy of these creatures fascinates us, and their huge, oddly shaped skeletons and massive teeth are visually impressive. Their fossils now act as a gateway to open discussions regarding science, evolution, anatomy, diversity and the future of our planet.
We are lucky to live in the state of Florida, as this is one of the best places in the world to find fossils. The bad news for those of you interested in looking for fossils as a hobby is that you may be disappointed to find out that dinosaurs never lived in Florida. Our state was underwater during most of the Mesozoic Era, the time period when dinosaurs ruled the Earth 200 to 65 million years ago. Do not worry though, after dinosaurs went extinct a whole new class of animals that lived in their shadows spread out all over the world and became known as mammals. Although you will not find dinosaur remains in Florida, the state is a wonderful place for fossil discoveries of extinct ice age mammals such as mammoths, mastodons, bison, camels, saber-toothed cats, giant ground sloths, and more.
How do I get started with fossil hunting?
To get started as an amateur fossil hunter you must first apply for a Florida Fossil Collecting Permit through the state. At only $5.00 it is inexpensive, and your only requirement is to make a yearly report of your findings, excluding fossil shark teeth. The purpose of the fossil collecting permit is to not only manage this non-renewable part of Florida's heritage but also to help paleontologists learn more about the range and distribution of the state's fossilized animals. Any person with an interest in Florida vertebrate fossils may apply for this permit. These regulations apply to both residents and non-residents of Florida. Minors can apply for permits but may also collect with a permitted adult parent or guardian who assumes all responsibilities and obligations for the collected specimens.
How do I take the first step in collecting?
Once you have your Florida Fossil Collecting Permit it is a good idea to join a fossil club or a group that takes regular trips to designated sites. The Central Florida Fossil Hunters group in Orlando is an excellent organization that meets once a month and can help beginners learn about amateur fossil collecting. Their goal is to enhance the cooperative spirit between amateur and professional paleontologists and to promote Florida paleontology through education.
Next, it is always a good idea to purchase a few books or field guides to help identify Florida fossils. An excellent beginner's guide is an award-winning book by Mark Renz titled, Fossiling in Florida. This book is very informative and provides great information and images to help identify the specimens that you collect. You can also join The Fossil Forum which is a fantastic website for professionals and amateur fossil hunters to link together. It is a worldwide network and community of fossil collectors, enthusiasts, and paleontologists all sharing their information.
What kind of equipment do I need to begin fossil hunting?
It is important to have the right tools to be an effective fossil hunter.
While fossil hunting, always carry your fossil collecting permit and other items you will need such as a mesh bag to store your findings while out in the field. A small shovel and sifting screen are among the most important tools to have a can be used to filter sand and uncover your findings. Gloves are important to protect your hands from sharp items, and a field chart is helpful in identifying your findings. More advanced amateur fossil hunters will also scuba dive for fossils. It is advisable to find someone who already works in this way to learn the ropes and best practices before attempting this on your own.
Where can I find fossils?
Fossils are seemingly everywhere and over time your eye will become trained on what to look for. To start, beaches are a great location to find shark teeth.
Southwest Florida Beaches
Venice Beach and Manasota Key Beach in Southwest Florida are great places to conduct a surface collect. A surface collect is the collection of isolated fossils that are clearly on the surface of the ground. While at these locations you can find lots of fossilized shark teeth, stingray teeth, stingray tails, and sometimes just offshore, mammoth and megalodon teeth. You will require snorkeling and diving gear offshore to find these larger specimens.
In Venice Beach, you can join a fossil tour such as Megalodon Charters, which will take you offshore and offer a variety of scuba dive classes. These tours take certified divers to hot spots off the coast for fossil collecting.
On the East Coast, the beaches that tend to collect shark teeth range from Flagler Beach up to Fernandina Beach, although not as numerous as on the Southwest Florida beaches.
The Peace River
One of the main locations in Florida to search for fossils of ice age animals is the Peace River, located in Southwest Florida. There, you can find evidence of these magnificent ice age mammals ranging from giant ground sloths to mammoths, all resting on the bottom of the river. A trip to Peace River for a day of fossiling makes for a great family weekend adventures with lots of physical activity and science.
A fossil guide group, such as Fossil Expeditions, will take you out on to the river with a guide either by walking or kayaking. The Peace River location is best explored during the dry season as the river tends to be very low, and in some areas, completely dry. Many times during the dry season the water is only knee high making fossil collecting fairly easy. You can check online for the river levels throughout the year.
Many major fossil finds have come out of the Peace River. Recently, a partial mammoth skeleton was discovered by two young amateur paleontologists on the southern portion of the river. Teeth, ribs, partial legs, and shoulder bones were all excavated. Their findings were recently donated to the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, Florida, the state fossil museum, for futher studies to be conducted by professionals.
The Bone Valley
The "Bone Valley" of Florida is another prominent place where fossils are found. This area is sometimes called the spine of Florida and is in the phosphate region of the state within the counties of Polk, Manatee, Hillsborough, and Hardee. These sites usually contain rich vertebrate fossil deposits. Usually, the only way to get access to these sites is to join a fossil club like the Central Florida Fossil Hunters or the Tampa Bay Fossil Club and sign up for a field trip to these locations.
Please be aware that fossil collecting comes with caution. Never collect unless you have permission from private landowners and note that laws do exist pertaining to collecting on state parks and federal land. It is important to check all your local and state ordinances. Be a good scientist and document the location of any significant finds. This is necessary for any level of understanding about the original organism's environment, historical age, and scientific significance.
Remember, the fossil record is the only source of natural (as opposed to experiemental or theoretical) examples of what happens to living organisms under conditions that Earth is not experiencing today. We should care about the history of life on Earth, as we too are part of the story.