St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Bone up

FossilFest uncovers a wealth of information on fossil hunting, showing how searchers can often find instant gratification in "fossiliferous" Florida.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2003


TAMPA -- Fifteen years ago, as Stephen Jacobson was digging for his first fossil near Ruskin, he hit something large and hard and was suddenly awed by the possibilities.

Was it a mammoth? A mastodon?

Jacobson scraped away in the dirt. Several back-breaking hours passed before he learned what he had unearthed. It turned out he had found not the fossilized remains of a prehistoric beast, but a plain old petrified root.

Still, the discovery gave rise to Jacobson's passion for paleontology, the study of the prehistoric past through fossils.

"To look at something that no human has ever seen before is exciting," he said.

Today, Jacobson has amassed a huge collection of fossils from Florida and around the world. His most impressive specimen is a 6-foot-2 cave bear found in Romania that he bought at an auction.

Named Nessie -- as in Bear Necessity -- it stands on its hind legs in a glass case in Jacobson's Beach Park home. She's about 50,000 years old -- young in paleontology years.

Jacobson, 60, will join hundreds of other fossil fans this weekend for the 16th annual FossilFest at the Florida State Fairgrounds. Organized by the Tampa Bay Fossil Club, the event features fossil displays, lectures and spear point-making demonstrations. Kids can dig for their own fossils in a giant sand mine.

Jacobson, a former club president, calls it the second-largest fossil fair in the world, next to one held in Tucson, Ariz. Dealers come from all over to trade and sell their treasured finds, which can range from $1 for a shark tooth to tens of thousands for a fossilized skeleton.

"If it's worth doing, it's worth obsessing over," said Jacobson, a window manufacturer who also collects paperweights.

The club started in 1987 after amateur paleontologist Frank Garcia discovered the Leisey Shell Pit in Ruskin four years earlier. Deemed one of the richest sites of Ice Age mammals, the pit unearthed dozens of species new to science.

Scientists compare it to the world-famous La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, but is actually older.

Co-founded by Garcia, the club has about 600 members from the Tampa Bay area and beyond. Members go on fossil hunts, attend lectures and visit shows.

The Leisey pit discovery sparked a lot of interest in paleontology statewide, club officials say. Florida is filled with fossilized remains of ancients horses, pigs, sloths and elephants that roamed the land 10,000 to 1.5-million years ago.

Fossil diggers refer to Central Florida's phosphate region as Bone Valley.

"There's not an animal that we didn't have, other than dinosaurs," said Michael Searle, the club's president. "We had it all."

The state was under water until 30-million years ago, making the area too young for dinosaurs, which lived about 75-million years ago. Many of the fossils come out of rivers and streams where animals died and were quickly covered with sand and silt.

Searle got into paleontology while hunting for sharks' teeth in the beaches around Venice, south of Sarasota.

"I couldn't believe all of the stuff found in Florida," he said.

Over the years, he and his wife, Seina, have found thousands of fossilized bones and imprints of plants and animals. They devoted a bedroom of their home in Lutz to their collection and go on several digs a year, mostly in shallow rivers.

Like golf or fishing, there's no such thing as a bad day of fossil hunting, he says.

Searle found his favorite souvenir -- a full set of bear teeth -- from a river in Marion County. State paleontologists declared it the first, short-faced bear discovery in Florida, he says.

Legally, fossil finders can keep anything dug from private property. In most cases, however, they give new findings to the University of Florida in Gainesville, the state's repository for fossils. Hunters must get a state permit to troll waterways.

Scientists and professional paleontologists credit fossil hobbyists with advancing the science. They typically spend more time in the field than people in academia, whose time is taken up by teaching and publishing.

"Amateurs are considered by many as the backbone of the science," Garcia said.

Mason Meers, an assistant biology professor at the University of Tampa, said groups such as the Tampa Bay Fossil Club help Florida uncover its past. He and a group of students and volunteers are digging a site in Hendry County in South Florida where a farmer found a 5-foot mammoth femur in a cow pond.

Meers sees fossil hunting as a fun family activity that offers instant gratification. Especially in Florida, one of the most "fossiliferous" states in the country.

"I suspect if you dig a hole anywhere in the state you can find some kind of fossil," he said. "You can go out and find them on your first try."

Jacobson said fossil hunting keeps your mind and body active. All it takes is a shovel, knife, space, brush -- and some determination.

"It's a real thrill," he said. "You never know what's there."

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com .

If you go

The Tampa Bay Fossil Club's 16th annual FossilFest runs this weekend at the Florida State Fairgrounds. Tickets are $3 for adults and free to children under 12 with a paying adult. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Enter along Orient Road and follow the signs. For information on the fossil club, go to www.tampabayfossilclub.com.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.