FRIENDLY FLORIDIAN FOSSIL-HUNTING HOW-TO'S
Embracing a spirit of discovery
If you are viewing this page, you are about to begin exploring one of my most favorite hobbies to pursue in Florida. In this section, I will provide information about rules to follow, equipment to use, places to look and other helpful tips.
First and foremost, if you are fossil-hunting in the State of Florida and you intend to keep anything other than seashells and shark teeth, you will need to apply for a permit. It is not hard to do at all. It’s $5.00 a year and all you must do to keep it current, is report any vertebrate fossils you find at the end of each year and pay another $5.00. This link will provide you everything you need to apply: https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/vertpaleo/amateur-collector/fossil-permit/
If you go with a guide, make sure the guide has obtained a “multi-user permit” that will cover their finds and yours.
When you hunt for fossils, the rules are deceptively simple. 1.) Never dig in the banks of rivers or creeks. Stay below the water line. 2.) Stay off of private property, unless you have the explicit permission of the land owner. 3.) Do not collect native artifacts or disturb historic sites. 4.) No digging in State Parks or other posted areas. 5.) Familiarize yourself with local laws and ordinances regarding fossil hunting/digging as these may differ from State Law.
SAFETY TIP: For safety purposes, you should not go out alone. If you must hunt by yourself, share your trip plan with a trusted family member or friend who can send for help if you don’t report back to them in the allotted time. Tell them where you are going and your general range of locations and what time you should check in.
FOSSILS WHAT & WHERE:
In order to find fossils, it is important to understand what they are and where they can be found. Fossils are the remains of ancient life. Over long periods of time, minerals can replace the organic material of previously living things such as bones or teeth, or can simply be impressions left in in stone. Seashell or plant leaf impressions, are examples that fall into this category and are known as “trace fossils”.
Fossils are primarily formed in the ground and under water, and they are most commonly found where wind or water erode them from the ground. River bottoms, beaches, deserts, cliffs or hillsides are just some of the many places fossils can be exposed by the elements. Fossils are also found commonly during excavation projects such as construction, dredging or mining.
Florida is renown as one of the richest fossil sites in the world. There are a few reasons for this: 1.) Our geological history. There has been very little geological activity like earthquakes or volcanic eruptions to disturb the ancient record of life here. 2.) An extensive river system seems to have been a part of Florida’s landscape for a very long time. This contributed greatly to the amount of fossil material to be found here as it is a key factor in the preservation of animal and plant remains. 3.) Anything that dies and is buried quickly by sediment is more likely to fossilize well. Due to Florida’s long history of sea-level rise and fall, this means anything from mammoths to sharks can be found here!
Florida’s fossil record goes all the way back to the Eocene epoch, approximately 50 million years ago. During that time, the ocean covered the entire state. Sea level has risen and fallen many times since then and multitudes of land animals and sea life lived and died here. Sometimes, if the conditions were right, their remains fossilized and remained entombed in various types of sediment. The action of water, such as that in rivers and the ocean, very often uncovers these fossil producing sediments. Many times there are a mix of terrestrial (land–dwelling) and marine (ocean-dwelling) fossils in the same location.
The most common and abundant fossil finds here (and worldwide) are shark teeth. On any given day, in the right location, many teeth can be found. Mixed in with the sharks, fish, whale and dolphin fossils, are much more recent land animal remains such as mammoths, mastodons, sloths, tapirs and horses (and many more).
Throughout the world, virtually all of the largest animals of the Pleistocene (commonly known as the ice-age) went extinct between 8 and 12,000 years ago. These large ice-age mammals are collectively known as megafauna. The exact cause for their extinction is still unknown but scientific evidence most recently points to possible over hunting by early man and a subsequent partial collapse of the ecosystem.
Basically, anywhere in Florida, fossils may be found, but the richest deposits run through central to Southwest Florida. (Think Gainesville to Port Charlotte). No dinosaur fossils have ever been recovered in Florida because during the age of the dinosaurs, our state was at the bottom of the ocean.
WHERE TO LOOK:
When hunting fossils in Florida, your best bet is to look in places where nature has done most of the work for you. As previously mentioned, oceans, rivers and creeks tirelessly erode the fossil layer exposing numerous fossils and shark teeth. Look for somewhat-shallow water conditions where there are accumulations of sediment. This happens most around bends in the rivers or creeks. The larger the sediment, the more likely you are to find large fossils. (If you are diving, you only need to know where the bottom holds gravel.) On land sites, which are few and far between, it is likely that unless someone has done significant excavation you will need to dig down to the fossil layer. In some places this can be quite deep. Construction sites and road clearing areas can be great for excavation but are also very commonly posted against trespassers.
Once you have found a location that look promising, you will need to have equipment that is up to the task of digging, sifting and recovering your fossil treasures. Every individual hunter develops and has their own preferences. You will need a digging tool of some kind. At the beach a flea rake or dip-scoop will usually suffice, but in the creeks, rivers or landsites, you will need a shovel or sturdy scoop. You will also need some type of sifter to separate soil from sediment. I also encourage the use of a metal probe in water sites to help locate gravel under layers of sand or clay. I use a custom-made, stainless steel, reinforced scoop that I had made for me by Reilly’s Treasured Gold, a steel, septic probe that I ordered from Amazon, and a floating sifter that I made using PVC pipe, stucco lath or garden mesh and floating pool noodles. Plans and designs are abundant online if you want to build your own. You can also buy sifters at certain shops around the state. As you will be hunting in dirty, wet, muddy conditions, you should wear appropriate apparel for the excursion. I strongly recommend a closed toe shoe that works for you in the water, no one wants to spend the day at the ER because of sharp rocks, glass or other foot-damaging material. Also- don't forget to stay hydrated and wear your SPF!!
Fossil hunting is a fun and rewarding hobby and in the last several years, many more people have adopted this time-honored tradition. It is normal to ask for help getting started, but it is uncommon for people to share their favorite spots or “honey holes”. If someone helps you or shares a spot to dig, try to keep it to yourself out of respect for their efforts. The most time-consuming part of fossiling is finding a fossil-rich location. Be courteous to other hunters and do your best not to dig right on top of people you see digging while you are out on the hunt. Pick up your trash and take it with you when you leave. Be aware that in many cases, fossil hunting will put you in some of Florida’s wildest places. Be aware of your surroundings and keep an eye out for potentially dangerous wildlife.
I hope this page is helpful in getting you started. Please contact me if you need a guide, a “buddy” to dig with or if you have additional questions.