Titanis walleri

Titanis walleri – one of two sculpted by paleoartist Steve Hutchens, specially cast for South Florida Museum supporter Jim Toomey, which he donated to the museum.

Today, most Florida-bound travelers reach the state using some pretty straightforward routes ... I-75 south is popular, along with flights from all locales. But how did new residents find Florida some 60-plus million years ago?

That’s the question visitors will have fun exploring when South Florida Museum’s newest special exhibition – “Finding Florida” – opens Feb. 9 in the East Gallery, at 201 10th St. West, Bradenton, Florida.

This interactive exploration will follow the journeys of four species that migrated to Florida during the Great American Biotic Interchange — an exciting prehistoric period when sea levels fell, creating a land bridge between South and North America that led to one of the strongest periods of northward animal migration ever.

“Finding Florida” explores how giant ground sloths, manatees, armadillos and even fearsome, flightless, carnivorous terror birds migrated north over thousands of years and many generations from South America by island hopping and using the newly formed land bridge, the Isthmus of Panama.

The special exhibit is a game that lets visitors take on the role of each animal, making choices as they proceed on their northward migrations. How will they deal with other species, a new environment and use their special adaptations? Will their choices see them through the journey or end in extinction?

This exhibition was developed by the museum’s own curatorial experts and highlights some fascinating objects in its collection, including two terror bird skeletons – Titanis walleri – sculpted by paleoartist Steve Hutchens then specially cast for museum supporter Jim Toomey. When Toomey donated them to the museum, they became two of the few terror bird skeletons on exhibit in any North American Museum. One reason so few examples exist is because only fragments of terror bird fossils have been found in North America — specifically in Texas and Florida.

“Terror birds are a really fascinating animal,” said Matthew Woodside, chief curator and director of exhibitions. “They were the only large predator in South America so they were the top of the food chain. Scientists think they may have taken advantage of changing sea levels to move from island to island as they made their way north. That’s how we think they found Florida. How did other species find Florida? We’re excited for our visitors to find out.”

“Finding Florida” is open Feb. 9 through March 17 and is included in the cost of general admission. Call 941-746-4131 for hours, info and admission details, or visit: SouthFloridaMuseum.org.

About South Florida Museum

As the largest natural and cultural history museum on Florida’s Gulf Coast, the South Florida Museum offers engaging exhibits as well as educational programs that interpret the scientific and cultural knowledge of Florida, the world and our universe.

The museum features permanent exhibits and a constantly changing lineup of temporary exhibitions — offering something new to discover with each visit. The museum includes the all-digital Bishop Planetarium Theater and the Parker Manatee Aquarium, home to the Stage 2 Manatee Rehabilitation Program.

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