Florida Museum of Natural History Seeking Volunteers to Collect 5- to 6-million-year-old Fossils

by Rachel Narducci and Richard Hulbert, Florida Museum of Natural History

Each year, the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology (VP) at the Florida Museum of Natural History (FLMNH) holds at least one ‘in the field’ event, requiring a volunteer effort to help dig for and collect fossils in Florida. Since 2000, volunteer digs occurred at the early Miocene Thomas Farm Site, the late Miocene Tyner Farm Site, the early Pleistocene Haile 7C and 7G sites, and the late Pleistocene Millennium Park Site. Collectively, these digs have produced many thousands of scientifically valuable fossils now housed in the museum collection.

In early November of 2015, a five-year-old girl and her grandmother were walking around the family’s property near Williston looking for chert artifacts. The pair stumbled upon a pit, which had been used to excavate clay for road repairs. Shortly after entering the pit, instead of chert they discovered vertebrate fossils. Through a succession of interactions, news of this discovery reached the VP Collections Manager, Dr. Richard Hulbert. After receiving an image of the first fossils discovered, he drove out to the locality and not only found fossils at the surface but also in-situ. An excavation began the very next day.

Within the first year, 227 volunteers and VP staff dug on 150 different days (41% of the year), recovering 10,000 identifiable fossils and discovering 60 different species! During this time, the locality was named after a nearby defunct town, ‘Montbrook’, and the age was narrowed down to the latest Miocene to earliest Pliocene geological epochs, which occurred 5.5- to 4.5-million-years-ago.

Volunteers working at the Montbrook site. Photo courtesy of Jeff Gage/FLMNH
Volunteers working at the Montbrook site. Photo courtesy of Jeff Gage/FLMNH

The Montbrook Site is very productive and almost all volunteers will find some fossil specimens on their first day. The most commonly found fossils are partial to complete freshwater turtle shells and vertebrae, spines, scales, and skull bones of fish, including gar, catfish, snook, and drum. Shark and ray teeth, and fossils of alligators, birds, and mammals are also found, but less frequently. Of the mammalian remains, the most common are from gomphotheres, which are elephant relatives. Isolated bones and teeth are typically found, with fewer articulated skeletons, strengthening an idea that a flowing river may have scattered the remains after death and decay of the soft tissues.

ossils found at Montbrook include both aquatic and terrestrial species, including pieces of the shells of two types of turtles, Trachemys (slider) and Apalone (soft-shelled turtle), gar fish scales, an alligator osteoderm, and a gomphothere (elephant-relative) metapodial.
Fossils found at Montbrook include both aquatic and terrestrial species, including pieces of the shells of two types of turtles, Trachemys (slider) and Apalone (soft-shelled turtle), gar fish scales, an alligator osteoderm, and a gomphothere (elephant-relative) metapodial. Photo courtesy of Rachel Narducci.

This teacher volunteer successfully created and removed a plaster jacket from the fossil site. The plaster jacket allows the fossil and surrounding dirt to be brought back to the lab where it will be carefully prepared.
Rebecca Mussetter, a teacher volunteer, successfully created and removed a plaster jacket from the fossil site. The plaster jacket allows the fossil and surrounding dirt to be brought back to the lab where it will be carefully prepared. Photo courtesy of Rachel Narducci.

Montbrook is the first late Hemphillian (North America Land Mammal Age) site found in north Florida. It is located about 120 miles north of the Palmetto Fauna, the state’s only other source of late Hemphillian fossils. Unlike that region, Montbrook is producing more complete specimens and contains the first significant terrestrial small vertebrate fauna of this age from Florida. The Palmetto Fauna is rich in marine species, while the aquatic species discovered at Montbrook are mostly from freshwater habitats. It appears that Montbrook is providing the first direct evidence of its age about vertebrate life in a coastal river and adjacent habitats in the Southeastern United States. This means we are digging into the unknown; we may have already discovered new species or species venturing further from their currently believed geographical ranges.

Alex uncovering a gomphothere tusk
Alex uncovering a gomphothere tusk. Photo courtesy of Rachel Narducci.

Volunteers at work. Photo courtesy of Jeff Gage/FLMNH
Volunteers at work. Photo courtesy of Jeff Gage/FLMNH

Making an elephant jacket. Photo courtesy of Rachel Narducci
Making an elephant jacket. Photo courtesy of Rachel Narducci

The fossil dig site is located on private property and the owner has been extremely generous in allowing access but endless extensions to our access cannot be expected; time is of the essence. Volunteers are needed to help with the excavation. Without the volunteer effort, 10,000 identifiable fossils and 60 different species absolutely would not have been recovered within the first year. Discovering fossils from a red panda is possible with the age and environment of this locality. It would be the southernmost occurrence and the third record of this creature in North America. The more dirt we move the closer we may come to this possibility. Volunteers are also needed to help in the lab and collection, preparing specimens out of plaster jackets, screen washing, rebuilding, and cataloging/identifying fossils from Montbrook.

Digging at the Montbrook fossil site will end for the Fall 2016 season on Sunday, December 18th. Almost all of the dates leading up to this are now full thanks to so many amazing volunteers. After a holiday break, we will begin digging again, 6 days per week on Saturday, January 14th, 2017 until early May 2017. There is no cost to volunteer and all digging and collecting equipment will be provided. Volunteers must be at least 15 years old, able to work outdoors for several hours, and physically fit enough to kneel/dig within a 1 meter by 1 meter square and carry buckets of dirt out of the pit. Volunteers can work just a single day, a few days, or a regular schedule one or more times per week. If you are interested in volunteering at the Montbrook Fossil Dig follow the links below or email the coordinator of the volunteer effort, Rachel Narducci: [email protected].

For more information and the volunteer application with digging dates:

http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/vertpaleo/volunteering/field/

http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/museum-voices/montbrook/get-involved/

For more information about the locality and images:

http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/florida-vertebrate-fossils/sites/mont/

 

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