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    Extreme meets extinct

    Fans of reptiles and fossils stalk the earth of the fairgrounds, where vendors sell everything from fossilized poop of gators to fly lunches for lizards.

    By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 9, 2003


    TAMPA -- The eyes of a giant melleri chameleon are so shifty they can keep watch on a front door and a back door at the same time.

    If that isn't enough to make it a perfect pet, it snaps up flies better than its cousins in those Budweiser commercials.

    "I've seen her tongue out 18 to 20 inches," said Thomas Lossman, referring to the chunky reptile he was selling Saturday at the Florida State Fairground. "It's very impressive."

    So were the numbers of people who thought about taking it home.

    Thousands came to the Florida International Reptile Show to ooh, aah and buy everything from boas and geckos to tarantulas and frozen rats. Organizers expect to see at least 12,000 people by the time the expo ends today.

    The show was part of a one-two science-and-shopping punch.

    Just around the corner, some 2,500 people showed up for the 16th annual FossilFest to visually feast on a cornucopia of bones, teeth and skulls.

    For $2 a pop, shoppers could buy smooth, round chunks of fossilized alligator poop. For $10, they could snag replicas of teeth lost long ago by T. Rexes and ancient sharks.

    The latter, as big as pie slices, were used by 50-foot-long sharks to rule Florida waters millions of years ago.

    "This one lost them in whales," said Sharon Blinebury, who made the teeth. "Think big."

    The FossilFest, which continues today, wasn't only about buying stuff.

    At the "fossil mine," kids shuffled through a sand box to scarf up gems. Andrew Hanson, 6, emptied his bag of bone bits in front of Melinda Hamsher, a geologist.

    Turtle shell, sting ray spine, shark's teeth, Hamsher said as she sorted. And the mass of bone as big as a softball?

    "May be part of a hip," she said.

    "Brachiosaurus?" asked Andrew.

    No, maybe a sloth or a whale, Hamsher told him.

    Studying old bones is more than neat, said Michael Searle, president of the Tampa Bay Fossil Club, which sponsored the event.

    Camels, llamas, mammoths, saber-toothed cats -- all roamed Florida at one time. "And they didn't make it," Searle said. "It's important to find out why."

    Who knows, Hamsher said. We might learn something to save ourselves.

    She shrugged: "Extinction still happens."

    Back at the reptile show, living fossils were on the market.

    Scores of vendors, collectors and breeders traveled from 34 states to sell. Geckos were going for $60; albino boas for $1,600.

    Food was cheaper.

    Baby mice -- "pinkies" and "fuzzies" -- were 50 cents each. A cup of fruit flies cost $10.

    Erin McLay raises the flies in her Washington state home to satisfy a rocketing demand for frog, gecko and chameleon food. Before she became a professional fly breeder, she taught high school science.

    "Bugs are a lot nicer than teenagers," she said.

    And for the nation's estimated 2-million reptile owners, cold-blooded critters are better than cats and dogs.

    Maryse Black and her husband bought two ridge-tailed monitors for $325 and a yellow bearded dragon for $125. The red-foot tortoise was a steal: $90.

    "We probably have $10,000 worth of reptiles at the house," said Black, cradling the tortoise in her arm like a fullback with a football. "Which is nothing. Some snakes here are $15,000."

    Black didn't want to say where she lived. As the reptile pet market has grown, so has reptile thievery. A few years ago, someone broke into Black's home and stole 40 to 50 snakes worth $8,000.

    Some reptiles don't go willingly.

    At Kalam Azad's booth, a crammed-up crocodile monitor scraped at the confines of its glass cage. The Indonesian lizard is 2 feet long but it will grow to 8 to 10 feet, said Azad, from Homestead. It will get crankier as it gets older.

    "They can take your finger off," he said.

    For a more sedate pet, Azad suggested a $5 emperor scorpion.

    It might look like a crawfish with attitude, but it won't sting, he said. Even if it does, it isn't poisonous.

    Back at Lossman's booth, the melleri chameleon was keeping one eye on the cage next door, home to a half-dozen Jackson's chameleons.

    The three-horned neighbors look like mini Triceratops, the long-gone three-horned dinosaur.

    That might not be a coincidence, Lossman joked. His pitch: Triceratops didn't go extinct; they evolved into the tiny, goggle-eyed tree dwellers he's now selling.

    He laughed: "That's my theory and I'm sticking to it."

    -- Staff Writer Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com .

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