Unearthing the past


Tabitha Cale, center, a temporary collections assistant, Richard Hulbert, right, a collections manager and Art Poyer, left, a collections assistant all with Florida Museum of Natural History, dig for fossils at a paleontology site in Newberry on Tuesday. They are digging up bones of a variety of animals that lived 2 million years ago in this area.

TRACY WILCOX/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, October 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 30, 2005 at 10:43 p.m.

One day, about 2 million years ago, a holmesina (that's a prehistoric armadillo, which was the size of a small horse) was lounging by a lake near Newberry. This holmesina (let's call him "Randy") ran into some bad luck that day.

He died, and sank to the bottom of the lake.

Sad story, right?

Well it certainly was for Randy. But after his final swim, it appears his luck turned. His bones, undamaged by predators or by the Florida sun, nestled in the sediment on the bottom of the lake, and were preserved for two millions years as a nearly complete skeleton.

Last spring, University of Florida paleontolgists dug Randy up, making him the first complete holmesina skeleton ever found. And, beginning Oct. 11, UF researchers, students and volunteers will begin work at the site of that long-dry Newberry lake, christened Haile 7G, confident that it will yield more significant discoveries that will help shed light on life in Florida during the Late Pliocene Period.

"It could be one of the most important sites we ever found," says Richard Hulbert, Vertebrate Paleontology Collections manager at the University of Florida Museum of Natural History. "It's already produced skeletons of two animals we haven't found before."

In addition to the aforementioned Randy, researchers have unearthed the first complete skeleton of a creature that is a close cousin to today's porcupine, as well as ground sloths, tapirs, horses and other fossils, all discovered during just a cursory preliminary dig.

The site was located earlier this year while a UF paleontologist was leading a field trip and noticed that mining activity had cut through a big pocket of clay. Upon examination, two complete skeletons were found on the first day.

Preliminary digging was done during the summer, and plans were made for the full-scale excavation, which will get under way on Oct. 15 and continue through mid-December.

The dig has been nicknamed "The Tapir Challenge," a reference to a tongue-in-cheek battle between paleontologists in Florida and Tennessee to claim the site with the most tapir bones. Florida long held the crown as the home of the prehistoric tapirs (a pig-like creature that still exists today in a slightly altered form), until the Gray fossil site near Johnson City, Tenn., stole the title of world's richest tapir site.

"We've just dug a little bit, and we've already found eight individual tapirs," said Hulbert. "That's with less than one percent of the work done, so if they're distributed randomly, we ... should get an extremely large number of specimens."

To effectively cover the dig site, which measures a diameter of 40 yards, the Florida Museum will employ a team of researchers, grad students and volunteers to scour the area, locating fossils and then meticulously removing them, being careful to minimize any damage to the specimens.

Museum officials have run a number of previous digs in the region, and volunteers have been instrumental in the success of these efforts. People from high-school age to well into their 70s have participated - anyone who can handle moderate exertion and extended time outdoors is welcome.

Holly Hillegass, a retired CPA from Jacksonville Beach, has volunteered on past digs and will do so again this time around. She says she began with no experience whatsoever, just an interest in paleontology and a willingness to learn.

"You show up and you get down in the hole and, depending on where they put you, you are carefullly scraping dirt away and looking for bones," she says. "It's always exciting to find something new that you've never seen before and to try to figure out what it is."

Hillegass says she's made many friends with fellow volunteers, and as a group they seem to get a lot out of the experience.

"The staff is really knowledgeable, and they allow us to do everything. We're not there to be grunt labor; we get to learn and do," she says.

And if all goes as Hulbert hopes it might, our unfortunate friend Randy will not be the most significant thing to come out of the ground at Haile 7G. Among items on the wish list are a full skeleton of titanis, also known as the terror bird, a 7-foot-tall flightless species of water fowl of which only single-bone fossils exist, and a skeleton of a prehistoric hyena, known only through partial bones and teeth. Judging by what's already been found, such discoveries appear to be distinct possibility.

"We've literally only scratched the surface," he says.

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