Club Corner: Southwest Florida Fossil Society

by Chuck Ferrara, President, SFFS

Chuck Ferrara, President, SFFS with juvenile Mastodon tooth, Peace River, FL
Chuck Ferrara, President, SFFS

This issue we highlight the Southwest Florida Fossil Society, which has developed a partnership with an out-of-state fossil club (Special Friends of the Aurora Fossil Museum in North Carolina) that might serve as inspiration for other organizations.


The membership of the Southwest Florida Fossil Society [SFFS] is comprised of fossil enthusiasts across Florida, other U.S. states, Canada and Europe, and includes professional paleontologists, geologists and museum curators. Our purpose is to promote and foster the science of paleontology through the collection, identification and preservation of fossil remains. We provide a regional forum for education, training and experience in paleontology in a fun, family-learning atmosphere. We meet the second Saturday of every month at 118 Sullivan St., Punta Gora, Florida. At each meeting, a professional or highly qualified avocational paleontologist gives a lecture, slide show, or update on current research. Other activities include monthly field trips, raffles, and participation in regional education and outreach events such as National Fossil Day, among others.


In 1983, Mitchell Hope and Bill and Lelia Brayfield formed the Southwest Florida Chapter of the Paleontological Society. Within that first year, the name was changed to the Southwest Florida Fossil Club. The Brayfields lived in El Jobean in Charlotte County, Florida, where (with assistance from the Royal Ontario Museum) they built a facility called the “Brayfield Research Lab” on the back of their property. The lab was wall-to-wall with fossils that were collected locally. At that time it was easy—just some conversation, a handshake, and you were in. All the pits were mom and pop family run; the times have certainly changed.

The Brayfields are probably best known for discovering the first fossil occurrence of Heliaster microbrachius (a species of sun star) outside the eastern Pacific. In 1986, Lelia found a large slab of well-preserved H. microbrachius in late Pliocene (2.5 – 2.2 Ma) strata in a local El Jobean quarry pit. The Brayfields donated a substantial portion of the specimens to the Florida Museum of Natural History, where Douglas Jones and Roger Portell studied them and, in 1988, published a paper describing their significance for understanding the timing of the formation of the Isthmus of Panama. Mitchell Hope also made some noteworthy finds on the Peace River in the late 1960s, especially specimens of the Columbian mammoth, Mammuthus columbi, found along the river near Wauchula, Florida. With the help of his special fossil-collecting Boy Scout troop, Mitchell excavated the mammoth specimens; they now reside in the Smithsonian Institution.


Chuck and FLMNH grad student Julia Tejada
Chuck and UF/FLMNH grad student Julia Tejada

Jake Fitzroy, Eco-adventure Coordinator with UNF science students on the river with SFFS
Jake Fitzroy, Eco-adventure Coordinator with UNF science students on the river with SFFS

SFFS members
SFFS members

Since those early days of meeting in the Brayfields’ fossil lab, the club’s membership and mission have grown substantially, with a few moves of meeting location to accommodate the growth needs. Two years ago we transitioned to a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization to become a legitimate paleontological society and also to be able to accept monetary donations. With the need to grow outside of the “fossil club” box and diversify, as well as build partnerships and stay fresh for the future, there also came a name change to the Southwest Florida Fossil Society.

In 1997, we initiated a scholarship fund with two scholarships awarded to graduate students in paleontology at the University of Florida/Florida Museum of Natural History. We also started a grant funded by a portion of society dues; the grant committee starts meeting this summer to decide on the awards. The society supports the science of paleontology and related interests, and continues to expand its outreach and educational programs to provide inspiration for the public, and to build mutually beneficial partnerships with other fossil organizations. With the FOSSIL project now giving us [the FOSSIL community] the tools to better our outreach and educational materials, the future is bright. Our membership is currently 220 and growing. We are utilizing all opportunities to make our organization a success.


This year, we celebrate 10 years of cooperation between the Special Friends of the Aurora Fossil Museum club and SFFS—working, sharing, and learning together in the spirit of the FOSSIL project. The last ten years have been a wonderful “classroom” to watch the museum grow to what it has become today. I first came to Aurora in 2004 to go into the now-closed PCS Phosphate (Lee Creek) mine. The mine is what brought everyone to this eastern North Carolina town of 525 people on the shore of the Pamlico River. Just a short 20-minute car ferry ride across the river is historic Bath, N.C., with colonial houses to tour (Blackbeard the pirate hid out here also). After that first trip, I was hooked because of the quaintness of the area, the people, the local history, and the parade which is so “Mayberry USA” (for those familiar with the Andy Griffith Show).

The fossil exhibits at the Aurora Museum were built by volunteers past and present. Amateur and avocational paleontologists with a can-do attitude come up for festival week and volunteer their time in prepping the whale exhibit, setting up fossil displays, hanging banners, cleaning, mopping floors, and setting up tables and chairs. No one is above doing what is needed to make it all come together. This year, SFFS brought a display to promote our organization and show fossils.

The festival is one of the busiest times for the museum and friends. It is one of the biggest outreach/educational events for the surrounding community with all of the fossil displays, food, fun, games, vendors, guest speakers, a parade that takes you back to days gone by, and the piles of matrix brought in for kids to look for small shark teeth and other fossils. These are the ingredients that have built the character, personality, and charm of the Aurora Museum and that make it a unique and different experience.

Aurora Fossil Festival
Aurora Fossil Festival

Exploring the "pit" next to the Aurora Fossil Museum
Exploring the “pit” next to the Aurora Fossil Museum

The Aurora Fossil Museum took a big step for the future with the addition of new director Cynthia Crane. She brings a lot of expertise and I have no doubt that she will make careful and measured changes while striving to maintain the uniqueness, character, and charm of the museum that has attracted so many visitors and volunteers, like members of the SFFS, to come back year after year.

“Remember, always keep your head held high, but look down too once in a while – you don’t know what you might be stepping on.”
SFFSlogoTo learn more, visit the SFFS website.






 “Preserving the Past for the Future”