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To kids around school, Sierra's now 'Fossil Girl'

After finding fossils in a Seminole creek, the 16-year-old has become a celebrity.

By LORRIE LYKINS
Published February 27, 2007


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SEMINOLE - Jay Leno called first.

Then Ellen DeGeneres.

As word spread last weekend of the extraordinary fossil find in Seminole's Boca Ciega Millennium Park, 16-year-old Sierra Sarti-Sweeney has found herself in the spotlight.

Last month Sierra stumbled onto what scientists are calling the most significant fossil find in Pinellas County in nearly a century. Her initial find, a 65-pound jaw fragment and tooth of a Columbian mammoth, has ignited a frenzy of attention from scientists and the media.

Excavation of the park's creek bed is ongoing and evidence of other mammoths was uncovered last weekend, including teeth of juvenile Columbian mammoths.

The later finds suggest that the environment was similar to an African savannah at the time the creatures inhabited Seminole, around the time of the last Ice Age, said Dave Letasi, a paleontology specialist at Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry.

We checked in with Sierra for an update of what's happened since the St. Petersburg Times first broke the story on Feb. 17.

Sierra, when did you realize the importance of the story?

Well, the phone started ringing at eight o'clock Saturday morning and I don't think it's stopped since.

What do you think about the Jay Leno show calling Seminole High School looking for you?

I couldn't believe it.

I'm just an average kid who was walking through the woods and stumbled on this. I love Jay Leno. It's so exciting. Even the principal was excited that Leno called-he was screaming.

Have any other talk shows contacted you with invitations to be a guest?

Conan O'Brien hasn't called yet. I love Conan. His is the only other talk show I would go on because I'm pretty camera shy.

Tell us about the day you found the fossils, what exactly were you doing?

I was with two friends and we were in the woods taking pictures for a creative photography assignment. We left the trail and went down to this stream, which I love to walk by because it's quiet and clear. I decided to walk in the stream, and my friend and I noticed that we were stepping on stuff and we looked down and saw bones and thought at first maybe it was a crime scene, that maybe they were human bones.

We were like, 'Wow, this could be like a graveyard!'

So the bones were out in the open?

The ball socket (a piece the size of a volleyball) was lying on the bank just completely uncovered. I thought, 'How did no one ever see this before?' The whole bank was covered in bones - you couldn't walk along the bank without stepping on bones.

Did you have an idea of what you'd found?

Not at first, really, I mean, we thought maybe it was old horse bones, but when I found the tooth and jaw piece and it was a foot-long, yeah, I knew it was something. I took it home and gave it to my brother because he's studying to be an archaeologist. He took the piece to SPC's Seminole campus to show his teacher. It took off from there.

We understand that officials have offered to give you plaster casts of some of your finds.

Yes, I wish I could have kept a fossil piece but I can't. But I just wish they would give me a little tiny piece as a souvenir.

Has school been pretty crazy for you since the news broke?

Yes! Every time I see the principal in the hall he calls 'Hey, Mammoth Girl!' and some of the kids are calling me 'Fossil Girl' and 'Elephant Woman.' Mostly, everyone is excited and happy for me.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I've always wanted to be a zoologist, even when I was a little girl ... I loved Steve Irwin. I used to watch him on a show called The Ten Deadliest Snakes in the World, before he had the Crocodile Hunter show.

I wrote him some letters when I was 9 or 10 years old and he wrote me back. He said if I got an education, I could maybe work at his zoo. I love working with animals. They're a lot more enjoyable to be with sometimes than people.

Any final thoughts?

I guess it really helps to go off the trail.

I like going places you're not supposed to go, exploring stuff other people don't notice. That's part of my problem, too-sometimes it gets me into trouble. I want to bring my brother on Leno. He's so supportive and he loves Leno, too.

[Last modified February 26, 2007, 23:32:49]


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