There is something captivating about hunting for fossils in Florida. I certainly never imagined myself wading waist or chest-deep for miles in a river of murky water in Florida – Hello?! Gators! Snapping turtles! – armed with a shovel to heave loads of gravel and pebble and sand onto sifters under the blazing sun just to find some fossils.
And yet, there we were.
We, my two youngest children and I, found ourselves along a stretch of the Peace River near Wauchula in Hardee County on a homeschool adventure. Anyone can go fossil hunting for shark’s teeth without a permit (but you need a $5 annual permit to collect other vertebrate fossils) and this particular field trip was led by a fossils expert, which helped a great deal because my 10-year-old had a lot of questions I would not have been able to answer. Where I could identify shark tooth with some level of confidence, our guide could reel out long Latin names I couldn’t recall 30 seconds later. And what looked like a chipped black rock to me might actually turn out to be prehistoric giant armadillo shell or a piece of some large creature’s tusk.
You won’t find dinosaur fossils in Florida since this land was underwater in their time, but you can find a lot else! Our treasures (helped by generous shovel loads provided by or artifacts gifted by our guide) included: an array of sharks’ teeth from the common lemon shark to a rarer now-extinct type of shark whose name escapes me now, stingray parts (crusher plates and barbs), Megalodon teeth parts, dugong ribs, fish vertebrae, bird bones, tortoise shell, some sort of prehistoric mouse or mole skull, and a horse tooth.
My kids loved it. My son’s prized possession from the adventure is the horse tooth pictured above. Did you know that horses evolved here in North America? Many people think they were brought to the Americas from Europe, and eventually they were, but before that, they actually evolved here. While we found a horse tooth, another member in our group actually found what appeared to be an ankle bone from a camel. Pretty cool stuff. You just never know what you’ll find in the sifter next. We found at least one thing in virtually every shovelful. This is how people stay neck-deep in the river for hours and hours at a time. You might just find that perfectly preserved Megalodon tooth you’ve been hoping for in the next tray!
We had built sifters to prepare for this adventure. We made one with wood and one with pipe and they worked equally well. Both sifters were approximately 12″ x 24″ in size and we stapled or glued on 1/4 inch wire mesh, which was perfect for sifting sediment quickly while keeping even small shark teeth easy to find, and we used pool noodles zip-tied on to the sides to keep them afloat. The building process in itself was a fun and educational element to this experience, plus we can also use them for shelling at beaches.
We also brought our backpack cooler with lunch, snacks and drinks, sunscreen, hats, a box and a mesh bag for our treasures, a shovel per person (full size garden shovel for me and two kids’ shovels), a tube in which to transport all this up and down the river, rope to keep it all from floating away (the rope attached to my waistband with a carabiner), and of course my waterproof camera.
You’ll have the most luck finding fossils when the river is at least 12″ below normal level. We went when it was 29″ lower than usual. Check before you go by contacting a kayak and canoe outfitter place because they always keep an eye on water levels as they will not operate if the water is too low or too high. Or check the U. S. Geological Survey website for water levels at the location you want to visit. If the water is clear enough, and you’re feeling brave enough, you can bring a snorkel mask to look for fossils beneath the surface too.
One thing is for sure: fossil hunting is physical! My shoulders ached from shoveling loads of sediment through water for 6 hours, my feet ached from walking miles along a river bottom that varied from sandy (easy and pleasant!) to rocky and mossy (very slippery!) to covered in swaying vegetation (eek!!), and my left arm ached from a stretch of sunburn where I somehow missed with the sunscreen (ugh!). All well worth it though! It was a fun and memorable experience and my boy has been showing off his fossil treasures to anyone who will listen ever since. Check them out:
If you’d like to try your hand at fossil hunting along the Peace River, check out the Canoe Outpost for lots of information on fossils and how and when to find them! Good luck!