Finding fun among Florida's fossils

Gary Schmelz (2)
Fascinating fossils: A gathering around million-year-old fossils in sediment.

Gary Schmelz (2) Fascinating fossils: A gathering around million-year-old fossils in sediment.

If you love learning about Earth's storied past, being Dr. Gary Schmelz would be a dream job. Schmelz is leading fossil digs with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida throughout January, February and March. The digs will take place in Charlotte County and Sarasota and will include a fossil digging weekend for Conservancy members.

Bernice Schmelz
"Journey to the Edge of Eden" Author Gary Schmelz will lead the Conservancy of Southwest Florida's upcoming fossil digs.

Bernice Schmelz "Journey to the Edge of Eden" Author Gary Schmelz will lead the Conservancy of Southwest Florida's upcoming fossil digs.

When asked how he knows an area would be a good fossil dig site and what attendees can expect, Schmelz explains the quantity of fossils found exposed in the quarry wall and in the spoil piles leads dig participants to some exiting finds.

"People will find mostly fossil shells, coral and sand dollars that are 1.5 million to 1.2 million years old, and they will also find fossil bones," he said. "Some belong to ancient fish and turtles, and sometimes we find bones that belong to whales and other large mammals."

These fossil digs are in line with the Conservancy's mission, which is to inform people and conduct science-based research. One of the key components of preservation and conservation is the study of Earth's history. But in addition to being educational, fossil digs are fun, he said.

"Participants love making discoveries about Florida's past, and it's exciting to discover creatures that no one has ever seen before," said Schmelz.

Fossilized sand dollars are a favorite find for program participants.

Fossilized sand dollars are a favorite find for program participants.

Almost all of the deposits where they find fossils have been dated by scientists at the University of Florida, which is how he can tell old shells apart from new ones.

"All of the shells we find are far from the ocean and are buried 50-75 feet under the ground," he said.

Schmelz reports a number of new species discovered on the fossil digs.

"If a new species is found, it is added to the University of Florida's fossil collection and the name of the person who made the discovery is then added to the museum archives," he said.

Schmelz got into archaeology and fossil collecting because he, too, wanted to learn about Florida's past environment along with the changes the state has undergone.

"In order to understand our future, we must understand the past, and Florida has a well-preserved geologic history that tells us what natural environmental changes we can expect in the future," Schmelz said. "From this evidence, I can tell that within the next couple of hundred years, South Florida will once again be under the ocean."

This fossilized cowrie shell is about  1.2 million years old.

This fossilized cowrie shell is about 1.2 million years old.

His forthcoming book, "Journey to the Edge of Eden," focuses on Florida and its rich environmental story.

IF YOU GO

Registration is required for all digs. To register or for more information, call 239-262-0304, ext. 266 or go to www.Conservancy.org.

Fossil Digs & Fossil Safari Weekend

What: Search for 1.5 million year old Caloosahatchee specimens including giant apple murex, cowries, miters and vase shells

When: 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Jan. 26 and March 2

Where: Charlotte County

Cost: $60 members; $95 non-members, lunch not included

Gary Schmelz (2)
A fossil trip participant makes a find.

Gary Schmelz (2) A fossil trip participant makes a find.

Sarasota County Site Dig

What: Search for shells and bones up to 1 million years old

When: 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 16

Cost: $120 members, $155 nonmembers, lunch not included

Fossil Safari Weekend

When: April 12-14

What: professional guided dig by Dr. Gary Schmelz and Roger Portell from the Florida Museum of Natural History, collecting at Sarasota quarry (3.8 million year old fossils), fossil collection in North Florida quarry (32-42 million year old specimens), evening lecture at University of Florida on collecting fossils and behind the scenes tours.

Cost: $495 Conservancy of Southwest Florida members only, includes transportation, two nights lodging, meals not included in program fee.

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