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About Florida Fossils

ALLIGATOR

The gator is a very common Florida fossil, both teeth and dermal scutes. These are round or rectangular plates with a vertical ridge and are found under the skin of the gator. They form parallel ridges along the animal’s back. Fossil crocodile scutes are similar but without the distinctive ridge.

ARMADILLO

The giant armadillo (Holmesina septentrionalis) was huge compared to today’s tiny creature. They had thirty-six teeth and hundreds upon hundreds of bony scutes, both rectangular and pentagonal in shape. Like some other animals, they had four toes on their front feet and three on the back.

BIRDS

There are about 267 species of fossil birds known from Florida. These fossils are sometimes difficult to identify, since many are quite similar. Since many bird bones are more fragile than most other bones, it is somewhat rare to find them as fossils. The largest was the huge Titanis walleri, a type of flightless crane, whose remains have been found in the Santa Fe River in Gilchrist County.

BISON

The Bison antiquus is a late-comer to Florida, relatively speaking, having been here only about a half million years. Since it has been here a comparatively short time, its fossil remains are not as common as some other animals. Sometimes cow and bison bones are nearly indistinguishable. I often see cow jaws sold on eBay as bison.  A good way to tell them apart is that the lower edge of the bison jaw is relatively straight, and the cow jaw is more curved.

CAMEL

There were many types of camels in Florida, including the twelve foot high giraffe camel, but the two most common were the Hemiauchenia which was tall and slender and lived on the grasslands, and the Palaeolama which was shorter and heavier and which more closely resembled the Peruvian llama of today. Some large camel teeth are almost identical to bison teeth, but a bison tooth often has a small vertical pillar on the side between the sections which a camel never has.

CAPYBARA

This is a large aquatic rodent similar to a huge muskrat which still exists in South America. They are somewhat similar to a beaver and are occasionally found as fossils in Florida.

COPROLITE

This is the official name for fossilized dung, which is exactly what it looks like. Most of the coprolites are from alligators, but they may be from nearly any animal. Sometimes other small fossils, the remains of what the animal had eaten, are found inside the coprolite.

DEER

The white tailed deer was very abundant during the Pleistocene period and often grew somewhat larger than it does today. The astragalus is a small bone near the calcaneus, or heel bone. It is nearly identical to the camel and bison astragalus except much smaller.

FISH

Fossil fish in Florida have not been studied nearly as much as mammals. For example, there are only 81 species of fossil fish known, compared to over 800 that live in or around Florida today. Surely many more await discovery.

GIANT BEAVER

This was a truly formidable beast which weighed around 500 pounds and reached a length of eight feet. Some of the huge upper incisors measured 10 1/2 inches in length (although a good portion of this length extended into the skull and was not visible). The particular animal for which this species was first named was found in Ohio, hence it is called Ohioensis. Except for their great size, the giant beavers were almost identical to the modern beavers of today. The upper incisors were much more curved than the lowers. This is also true of tapir canines.

HORSE

Horses have been in Florida for approximately 25 million years, but Equus (the modern horse) has been here for about 2 million. The Pleistocene example here had an appearance very similar to the modern horse, although often slightly smaller. Its remains are very common in Florida rivers and streams. If the chewing surface of the horse tooth is approximately square, it is an upper tooth. If rectangular, it is a lower. This is true with many plant chewing animals, such as elephants, rhinos, tapirs, titanotheres, etc.

MANATEE

The ancestors of the manatee were one of the first fossil animals in Florida, dating back about 45 million years. The modern manatee has been in Florida about 3 million years. Their teeth are not common throughout the state, but where they do occur they are often abundant. Many are worn down flat and then naturally fall out and are replaced by new ones. That is why they are called “spit teeth.” This same process happened with the mammoths and mastodons also.

MAMMOTH

The latest research indicates that the only two species of mammoth in Florida were the Mammuthus haroldcooki or early mammoth (also called Imperial Mammoth) and the later columbi (Columbian Mammoth). The widely known Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) is now thought to have ventured no farther south than present-day North Carolina. Also, some leading scientists now believe that some mammoths may have survived much later than previously thought, perhaps as recent as 4000 years ago.

MASTODON

Mastodons were in Florida almost twice as long as mammoths and so they are more commonly found as fossils. They were generally shorter, thicker and more heavily built than the mammoths, and the males sometimes had two small lower tusks in addition to the large upper tusks. Both mastodons and mammoths were killed and eaten by early humans and today, more and more paleontologists and archaeologists believe hunting them may have caused their extinction in America. Complete mastodon teeth are very hard to find today in Florida, but bits of the enamel are often found in rivers and springs. These pieces may sometimes show beautiful colors and for this reason they are sometimes polished and made into jewelry.

TAPIR

The tapir is a semi-aquatic animal with a long, flexible nose which is very agile and mobile, a little bit like an elephant trunk, though much shorter. A very large lower tapir tooth closely resembles a small mastodon tooth and they are sometimes confused. Tapirs still live in South America and Malaysia. At one time they were very abundant in Florida.

TURTLES, TORTOISES

There were many types of turtles during the Pleistocene period, snappers, sea turtles, soft-shelled turtles, box turtles, and giant land tortoises. The latter had many small plates and spurs on their legs and along their bodies and necks. These vary in size greatly and may be pointed or nearly flat. The shell of soft-shelled turtles is easy to identify because it has many small dimples which makes it look like a peanut shell.


 

Want to learn more? Check out Dr. Robin C. Brown’s excellent book, Florida’s Fossils: Guide to Location, Identification and Enjoyment. Pineapple Press: Sarasota, FL, 1988.  Another indispensable volume  is Richard C. Hulbert, Jr. The Fossil Vertebrates of Florida, University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 2001.  If you are at all interested in Florida vertebrate fossils, this is the book to have.  Also helpful is Frank Kocsis, Vertebrate Fossils:  A Neophyte’s Guide.  IBIS Graphics, Palm Harbor, FL l997. For inquiries write to Ibis Graphics, 2913 Fairfield Ct., Palm Harbor, FL  34683.

For an introduction to snorkeling and SCUBA diving for fossils,  I recommend two fine books, Dr. Robert Sinibaldi’s  Fossil Diving in Florida’s Waters, or any other Waters containing Prehistoric Treasures, St. Petersburg, FL, 1998, and Mark Renz’ Fossiling in Florida, a Guide for Diggers and Divers, University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 1999.

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