One of the really cool things about living in Florida is that there’s evidence of life long ago all around us. The first fossils I collected were shells from unpaved roads and driveways. I didn’t know it at the time, but the starkly white olives, cowries, conchs and coral heads I was gathering had been deposited eons ago when sea levels were much higher than they are today, submerging most of the state under tropical waters.
These salty baptisms happened repeatedly as sea levels rose and fell, submerging all or most of the state at least four times, and possibly hundreds or thousands. Thus you can find shells and shark teeth that are millions years old and others that are much younger, and you can also find remains of land animals. In areas where the original deposits have been disturbed (the bed of the Peace River is a good example), it’s not uncommon to see shark teeth and bison bones lying side by side.
Fossils from the underwater eras include shells, which are so common that they are often used as road gravel, and shark teeth, which are familiar to almost any beachcomber. There are also palm-size megalodon shark teeth; stingray barbs, dermal denticles and dental pavements; puffer mouth plates; sand dollars; drum teeth; dugong ribs; and whale teeth, otoliths and enormous vertebrae.
Much of Florida’s recent fossil history is actually under the sea today. During the late Pleistocene, about 20,000 years ago, the peninsula’s landmass was about triple what it is now. Much of the planet’s water was locked up in enormous ice sheets covering temperate regions, so sea levels were much lower than they are currently — in fact, more than 400 feet lower.
At that time, Florida was home to all manner of megafauna, whose remains are still buried under our feet and under the sea. Mammoths and sabertooth cats are the best known, but there were also 600-pound armadillos, ground sloths 20 feet tall with foot-long claws, glyptodonts the size of a Volkswagen, bear-dogs, bison with 6-foot horns, beavers 8 feet long, woolly rhinos, llamas, camels, horses, jaguars, dire wolves and entelodonts (giant pig-like predators with skulls 4 feet long).
Of course, even in Florida, finding fossils that are readily identifiable can be tricky. Much of what you’ll find is pretty beat up and will be more or less unrecognizable chunks of bone. But it’s the chances of finding something incredible that keep fossil hunters going, and the good news is that a Florida fossil hunter has a very realistic chance of coming across just that.
Although you can and will find fossils on the beach, that’s one of the worst places to look for quality specimens. Tossing surf will sand-blast a nice fossil into a smooth dark blob in a relatively short time, so most beach fossils are basically shiny black rocks. Serious hunters can do much better diving in 10 to 20 feet of water off the beaches, where there are sometimes enormous aggregations collected by the current but not wave-worn.
Rivers and creeks are probably the most promising places to seek pieces of the past. Summertime floodwaters wash fossils out of the sandy banks and they collect in gravel bars and the on the outer edges of river bends where the current slows. In many places, the water is shallow enough to wade. Gravel bars tend to hold smaller fossils, which can be a disappointment for those looking for big, showy pieces. As with the beaches, more serious collectors generally turn to snorkel or scuba gear.
Shell and coral fossils can be found scattered among other aquatic remnants, but they occur in much greater density in marl pits. Digging such a pit yourself is a real chore, but there are a number of such excavation areas in Southwest Florida where abundant fossils can be collected — if you know where to go, and if you have permission to hunt there.
Casual fossil seeking doesn’t require much specialized gear — just your eyes. Of course, you can also drop thousands of dollars on equipment such as dive gear and underwater lights, and some people do. Fossil hunting is one of those things that starts out as a simple hobby but can easily become a passion or even an obsession.
For my favorite type of hunting in shallow flowing water, all you need is a shovel, a sifter made of 2x2 lumber and hardware cloth, and a partner. Choose a spot where you can see plenty of black rocks on the stream bottom. Scoop up a shovelful of sand and gravel and dump it in the sifter as your partner holds it, then shake it back and forth in the water so the sand falls through. Lift it out and sort through what’s left. Shark teeth usually jump out at you, but it can take some practice to spot other fossils. A 5-gallon bucket to carry your finds is helpful, and a fossil ID book can assist you in determining what you’ve found.
In Florida, there are no restrictions on collecting invertebrate fossils and shark teeth. However, to collect vertebrate fossils other than shark teeth on public lands or waters, you’ll need a permit. To get one, go to www.flmnh.ufl.edu/vertpaleo/vppermit.htm. The cost is minimal: $5 annually. Sometimes fossil hunters come across arrowheads or other ancient human artifacts. These may not be legally collected and must be left where you find them.
One of the most frustrating things for a would-be fossil hunter is selecting finding sites that hold decent numbers of fossils. While you may stumble across a fossil or two in many places, you’re not likely to run across the good stuff, such as megalodon teeth or pieces of mammoth tusk, by accident. There are a number of good ways to get your feet wet: You can hire a guide to show you the ropes, or you can join a fossil club, or you can take part in an organized hunt.
Whether you end up a die-hard collector or just pick up a piece here and there, fossil collecting is a fascinating way to enjoy the Florida outdoors while making a connection to the long-gone past. Give it a shot sometime.