Florida Fossils on Display

The Fantastic Fossils exhibit at the Florida Museum of Natural History (Gainesville) runs through December 30, 2022.

Triceratops and Albertosaurus replicas.
Fantastic Fossils, Florida Museum of Natural History.

As visitors enter the exhibit, they are greeted by Triceratops and Albertosaurus skeletons. Although these replicas are amazing to look at, no dinosaurs have been found in Florida, which was covered with water during the dinosaurs’ reign.

However, Dinohyus, a ten-foot-long (three-meters-long) omnivore could be found 18 million years ago. Although Dinohyus resembled a giant hog and is also known as the Terror Pig, it is only distantly related to modern hippos.

Terror Pig skull

On the periphery of the exhibit, paleontologists and paleontology volunteers work within view of passersby, who can stop to ask questions. The fossils being worked on were collected at the Montbrook site, where the University has been digging for the past seven years.

Montbrook was discovered in 2015 near Williston. A landowner decided to repair his dirt roads with excavated sand and gravel. The resulting pit stood open, and he was concerned that his cattle might fall in. The plan was to refill the area as soon as possible.

One day, his five-year-old granddaughter went for a walk with her mother and grandmother. As they made their way around the pit, the child found the sand irresistible. She climbed into it, but wasn’t strong enough to climb back out.

The women then climbed in to help. It was then that they noticed bones protruding from the earth. The property owner called the University, to see if the area was worth preserving, and a trial excavation was undertaken. The findings were considered significant, and there are now hundreds of casts holding large fossils, just waiting for museum volunteers to release them. Montbrook is on its way to becoming the most important site in the state.

When someone spots a piece of large bone on site, an expert estimates its size. A trough is then dug around the bone, and the sides and top are wrapped in plaster-coated bandages –the same material doctors use to cast a broken arm. A trowel is then slid between the cast and the earth, and the fossil is rocked out. The encased bones are then taken to the lab for removal.

A five-million-year-old alligator skull
is being excavated from a plaster cast (or jacket).
Alligator is upside-down.

The Montbrook site was part of a river system five million years ago. All the fossils recovered have fine fissures running through them after being subjected to water and earthen pressure for millions of years. The bones would crumble were they removed in the field.

In the lab, dental and clay-sculpting tools are used to remove surrounding dirt until the fossil can be clearly seen. Then a special plastic is applied which seeps into the bone and prevents the fissures within from separating. Excavation then resumes.

A volunteer scans the matrix
for microfossils.

Sand removed from the jackets (casts) is preserved, dried, and put through a series of sieves. What remains is analyzed for microfossils (fossils nearly invisible to the naked eye). Fine gravel from the site is also bagged and examined for microfossils.

Two prehistoric eggs have cracks running through them.
The stone look-alike is smooth.

Some displays within the exhibit compare actual fossils with objects which might be mistaken for them. For instance, fossil eggs have cracks running through them. A rock with an egglike shape does not.

Fossil leaves

A few fossil plants are on display. One day I was lucky enough to watch a paleontologist slowly chip away the edge of a fossil leaf until the delicate ridged edge was exposed.

This case displays prehistoric sloth skulls.
In the background, paleontologists analyze findings.

One graduate student is running sloth and armadillo skulls through a CT scan, which reveals the size and shape of each animal’s brain. Scans also reveal where major blood vessels ran.

A set of Megalodon jaws allows visitors to stand behind the shark’s gaping mouth while friends or family snap pictures on the opposite side.

ABOVE: Megalodon jaws.
BELOW: Shark teeth and spine.

Additional Florida fossils are also on display in a permanent exhibit.

ABOVE: Tapir skeleton
BELOW: Terror Bird skeleton

The Florida Museum takes a few hours to see, and one can extend the visit by walking the Natural Teaching Lab Trails. The trailhead next to the museum is currently closed, but there is another across from the parking garage which includes picnic tables.

The fee to access the Fantastic Fossils exhibit is $7 ($4.50 for children 17 and under). For $20 ($11 for children 17 and under) one can visit both Fantastic Fossils and the Butterfly Rainforest. The permanent fossil exhibit is free, as are other permanent displays.

As of July 5, 2022, parking for the Florida Museum runs $4 on weekdays, but is free on weekends.

French Bob. No bones about it you will not find dinosaur fossils in Florida – for a good reason. South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Jul 03 1993.
Entelodont. Fossil Treasures of Florida.
Entelodon. Prehistoric Wildlife.

Published by cafsamsel

Carol Fullerton-Samsel is a nearly-native Floridian who lives with her husband of 25 years and three rescue animals. She has a passion for day-hiking and nature, and also enjoys writing. Be sure to visit the TenPaths YouTube channel, which is still in its infancy.

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