Wanted: Puzzle-lovers to help process 220 fossil skeletons found near Newberry

June 27th, 2007

Photos available

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Now that the second field season of excavating fossils at a site west of Gainesville has ended, Florida Museum of Natural History paleontologists are gearing up to begin work on the approximately 220 skeletons and literally thousands of specimens uncovered between mid-September 2006 and May.

Florida Museum Vertebrate Paleontology Collections Manager Richard Hulbert is looking for volunteers over the age of 16 who enjoy working on puzzles and are able to devote time weekly to washing, sorting and repairing the material.

“We’re looking for people who are really good with puzzles,” Hulbert said. “Because despite the wonderful preservation at the site, pressure has crushed many of the bones into five, 10, or even 50 pieces that have to be put back together.”

This past year, Florida Museum staff and 316 volunteers dug at the site, located in a limestone quarry near Newberry, for more than 8,000 man-hours over 200 days using flat-head screwdrivers and trowels. Hulbert said this year’s dry weather extended the time they were able to work in the quarry, now considered the richest fossil site in the state for complete skeletons. The museum is working cooperatively with the landowners who support and encourage the excavation, even lending use of their equipment at times. Still, the location where Hulbert and his team are digging is scheduled for eventual mining and they have only one field season left (2007-2008) to extract more skeletons.

“Basically, we’re operating as a salvage operation,” Hulbert said. “We’re not recording as much data as we would in a different situation, in the interest of getting everything possible out of the ground.”

The skeletons, which are defined here as half or more of a creature’s bones being successfully preserved and collected, are located in a thick layer of clay mixed with limestone boulders. They date to about 2 million years ago.

“This year, we got many skeletons of two common species, one of the turtles and the tapir,” Hulbert said. “But what’s more exciting are the rare species. They’re driving the excavation now.”

Rare finds this season included a partial skull of a rattlesnake with one of the fangs, the oldest such specimen ever found in Florida. Volunteers also found a capybara, a large, barrel-shaped rodent which is the first one added to the Florida Museum’s collections with associated skull and jaw material. The first relatively complete skeleton from this site of an elephant-like animal called a gomphothere also was discovered this field season.

“Gomphotheres are the third branch of the elephant family tree, as opposed to the more familiar mastodon and the true elephants plus mammoths, and are the largest in terms of geographic distribution and diversity,” Hulbert said. “The age of this site represents an interesting evolutionary period for gomphotheres.”

Fossil diggers also found the skeleton of an extinct, large rabbit — the first of its kind and likely a new species — and 16 giant armadillo skeletons, each 4 to 5 feet long, half of which had associated skulls. Researchers also discovered a potential new species of mud turtle, identifiable by its distinctive shell and nearly complete skull.

“The mechanism of preservation at this site favored tapirs,” Hulbert said. “We collected 38 tapir skeletons this year.” The Florida Museum enjoys a friendly competition with East Tennessee State University over who has more tapir skeletons at their on-going excavations. Hulbert said by the end of this season the Florida Museum had a total of 72 skeletons and now leads the competition. This year’s excavation was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

“It will take years of curatorial effort to process the material we collected this field season,” Hulbert said.

Persons wishing to volunteer — especially puzzle lovers — should contact Hulbert, rhulbert@flmnh.ufl.edu or (352) 392-1721, ext. 252.

Writer: DeLene Beeland
Media contact: Paul Ramey, pramey@flmnh.ufl.edu