Montbrook Fossil Site volunteers unearth pieces of life millions of years old

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The teeth of a baby gomphothere. (Katherine Corcoran/WUFT News)

In a ditch in Levy County, about 15 people are digging in the dirt.

Five to 6 million years ago, the area was likely a river. Now, it’s the Montbrook Fossil Dig site. 

Eight years after the discovery of bones in the area, it is one of the most productive fossil sites in the Southeastern United States. Over 70,000 specimens have been collected by the Florida Museum of Natural History and volunteers. 

The crew is currently digging up the entire skeleton of a gomphothere, an extinct elephant-like mammal.

“Digging for fossils is like pick-up sticks,” said Cindy Lockner, the dig’s field assistant for vertebrate paleontology. “It’s exciting that this fossil is more complete.”

Lockner explained that over millions of years, everything gets jumbled up and tossed around, so most days you’re picking up part of a turtle on top of part of an alligator. 

Lockner’s expertise doesn’t stem from a degree in paleontology; it’s purely on-the-job training.

She is pursuing an active retirement by fulfilling her lifelong dream of working as a paleontologist. 

“It was always something I was interested in since I was a little girl. I wanted to do it for my career, but it wasn’t a field women really got into,” she said. 

Jonathan Bloch (front), Rachel Narducci (back left), and volunteers dig at Montbrook. (Katherine Corcoran/WUFT News)

Right before retiring, she began reaching out to fossil clubs and saying she wanted to learn. Fifteen years later, with thousands of hours digging under her belt in places from Florida to Montana, Lockner is one of the site supervisors at Montbrook and serves on the board of the Florida Paleontological Society.

“Now I get to do what I always wanted to do, it just took a little longer,” she said. 

In addition to Lockner, Jonathan Bloch, the curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, and Rachel Narducci, the Florida Museum of Natural History collections manager, lead the way at the site. 

Finding a fossil as complete as the gomphothere is a big deal, Bloch said. 

“Once we get this uncovered in January or February, if it is what we think it is, it will be the first articulate skeleton of a gomphothere in the Florida fossil record,” Bloch said.  

The age of the fossil site is particularly interesting, Bloch said, as the time period was right before the isthmus of Panama formed connecting South and North America, and leading to the mass arrival of invasive species. 

“This is a snapshot of the calm before the storm,” Bloch said. 

So far, the calm includes bird species, gomphotheres, sloths, otters, hyenas, alligators, rhinos, turtles and saber-tooth cats – a sample of some of the species roaming around Levy County millions of years ago. The site has revealed a brand new species of alligator and has proven otters were present about 1 million years earlier than previously thought. 

The work of digging up the fossils is aided by a team of volunteers. 

Deborah Poulalian holds a turtle fossil she dug up at the Montbrook Fossil site in Levy county. (Katherine Corcoran/WUFT News)

Deborah Poulalion, a data analyst from Orlando, drove two hours to get to the site at 10 a.m. Saturday. She has volunteered at Montbrook since around 2017 and said it’s very therapeutic.

“You just focus on the dirt and see what it gives you,” she said. 

She ran for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives a few years ago, and when she lost, the first thing she did was volunteer at Montbrook. 

She said she’s dug up many turtle fossils, including some from what the diggers refer to as the turtle death layer, a term her son plans to steal for his next band name. 

Poulalion turned to the man digging the square next to her to ask him the proper name of the turtle shell in her hand.

David Cox, a production manager from Jacksonville, rattled off the Latin name.

Ever since he found a shark tooth at a phosphate site when he was a Cub Scout, Cox has had a fancy for fossils and has volunteered everywhere from Montana to South Dakota.

After 400 hours volunteering at the Montbrook site and more volunteer hours spent in the lab back in Gainesville, Cox said he remembers the Latin names just by force of habit. And they serve as an endless source of computer passwords. 

Back in the lab in Gainesville, fossils are cleaned to their final form, and Cox said it’s great to see the end result. Once they’re prepared, Bloch said people come from all over the world to conduct research on the fossils. 

An alligator fossil in the lab at the Florida Museum of Natural History. (Katherine Corcoran/WUFT News)

“We have one of the best samples of gomphotheres in the world; we have the best sample of alligator snapping turtles ever found in the fossil locality; one of the oldest occurrences of deer in the fossil record; the oldest fossil record of a freshwater otter and the oldest skull of a smilodon saber-tooth cat,” Bloch said. 

With such an impressive resumé, Montbrook’s future looks to keep up with its past. MacKenzie Smith, a University of Florida doctoral student, said he is looking at a clay sample from the site to test for pollen to better understand the environment the animals were living in. 

“Fantastic Fossils,” the current exhibit at the Florida Museum of Natural History, features specimens from the site. People 18 and older can sign up on the Florida Museum of Natural History website to volunteer to dig or work in the lab, although the current season is fully booked. 

“What’s really amazing is volunteers are participating in active discovery,” said Bloch, “This isn’t Disneyland for show. This is really legitimate discovery.”

About Katherine Corcoran

Katherine is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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