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Unearthing history

The animals that once roamed this state constantly reveal their secrets to local paleontologists, who study their huge bones and jagged teeth.

By JENNIFER CONWAY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001


Not many people know it, but Thomas Jefferson was one of America's first paleontologists. In fact, during the Lewis and Clark expedition, the president had the two men search for ancient artifacts. Jefferson later displayed the resulting fossil collection in the East Room.

Now paleontologists, novices and experts are at work all over the globe. Digging and sifting through dirt and diving into rivers, they search for fossils and a glimpse into the earth's natural history.

Fifteen years ago paleontologist Frank Garcia was enjoying dinner at a local crab shack with friends when he decided that the Tampa Bay area needed a fossil club.

"I wanted it to be a family-oriented club," Garcia said. "Not like up North, where the clubs have limited memberships."

The Tampa Bay Fossil Club is now one of the largest in the country, with about 300 members from ages 4 to 80.

"I'm really tickled to see how the club has grown," Garcia said.

The club, a non-profit educational group, brings in speakers and organizes field trips in which parents and children alike dig for remnants of Florida's past. Typical finds include alligator and shark teeth, but members have found the fossilized remains of ancient horses, mammoths, giant sloths and saber-cats, some artifacts dating back more than 2-million years.

The goal is to educate people, especially children, said club president Barbara Fite.

The club will hold its 14th annual FossilFest from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Florida State Fairgrounds. Festivalgoers will learn about Florida's intricate natural history through displays, presentations, auctions and a touch table, where they can handle the artifacts, including the remnants of giant land tortoises.

The fossils on display range from some found by children to those discovered by professionals. There will also be a silent auction, raffles, door prizes, dealers and children's games, including a mini-mine filled with tiny bone pieces.

Gordon Hubbell, who has appeared on TLC and Discovery cable channels, will be speaking on prehistoric shark teeth fossils.

Chris DeLorey, education director for the Brevard County Zoo, will have on hand a dermestid beetle, a bug that "only eats dead, stinking, rotting things" and is used to clean fossils.

"Florida is one of the best places in the country to find fossils," said DeLorey. He noted that Florida was underwater until about 9-million years ago and has since undergone some major habitat changes, leaving behind layer after layer of fossilized remains.

"It's a good chance for families with children to get excited about science and about fossils," DeLorey said.

* * *

WHAT: FossilFest

WHERE: Florida State Fairgrounds

WHEN: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday

COST: Adults $3; children under 12 are free with paying adult

INFORMATION: (813) 909-9358

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