Agri Leader

What's buried in Florida's land is sometimes more than seeds

Back in the 1990s', Gene McAvoy, UF Extension, Hendry County, was wandering through a heavily wooded area of pine trees near Buckingham after a summer's rain. He looked down and saw, right in the sugar sand, rows of 30 and 50 caliber bullets all pointing in the same direction. They had washed up to the surface after the rain. “I picked up a couple and later showed them to an old timer,” said McAvoy, who subsequently found out that back in WW II, there was an Air Force training facility at Buckingham. The trainer fighter pilots would put targets out in what was then a remote area south of SR82 and then make strafing runs at the targets, hence the lines of bullets. “The old airfield nearby is now used to store Lee County Mosquito Control's spray planes,” added MvAvoy. Considering that Florida is made up of about 58,560 square miles, no doubt there are many interesting things that are lying in the lands, some of which dates way back. “In this area, thousands of years ago, we had dugongs. These were large marine mammals, and their bones were solid,” said Butch Wilson, director of the Clewiston Museum, who explained that dugong fossil remains were found in the Clewiston area.
About 25 miles south of Clewiston, fossils of 40-foot long ancient whales were discovered. Outside of Lake Okeechobee, molars and tusks of the ancient mammoths have been found. In South Florida, fossils from ancient horses and tapirs (similar in shape to a pig), were also unearthed. (A piece of a tapir's jawbone is on display at the Clewiston Museum.) “Florida was, at one point, 2.5 times the size it was today, and the sea levels were lower. The continental shelf that surrounds Florida was actually land level,” explained Wilson, who also said that the climate was drier then. Remnants from Indian tribes, such as pottery, arrowheads, jewelry, and even gold items, such as coins and jewelry have also been uncovered. The gold items were originally procured by the Indians from the Spaniards during trades. More recent objects have also been discovered. Take for example what John Ward, a cattle rancher at his family's J-Seven Ranch, found on his farm in Clewiston. One day, when Ward was herding cattle, and crossing a pond on his Honda, he heard a “clink” as his Honda hit something submerged. “I went back to the pond with a backhoe, and uncovered a B-47 Stratojet engine submerged deep in the mud. Ward was just a boy when a plane crash happened near his family home causing an earth-shaking explosion. Although all three crew members survived the crash by parachuting out, one of the bomber's engines was never found. Wouldn't you know, there it was lying in the pond only to be found many years later. Ward explained that when the plane crashed it was exceptionally alarming, because it happened in the 1960s, during the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a time when the world waited nervously as it was presumed we were on the brink of a nuclear war. “Military helicopters and police vehicles were called in quickly to investigate the source of this colossal explosion,” recalled Ward. In 2001, farm manager Richard Tillis of LaBelle was working with a backhoe to expand a pond during a drought. He dug up what turned out to be the femur of a mammoth or mastodon (broken into three pieces). Tillis reported it to the farm's co-owner, Dale Albritton of Alturas. Upon seeing the discovery, Albritton contacted the Florida Museum of Natural History's vertebrate paleontology collections manager, Dr. Richard Hulbert. Hulbert, in turn, contacted Mason B. Meers, associate professor of evolutionary biology and anatomy, who made the first trip out to see just what had been unearthed. Turns out that in that very pond laid a whole lot more than just a femur bone. “Mr. Albritton generously made the land available to us for excavation. Dr. Hulbert and I worked the site for the next two years with a tremendous amount of assistance from the Albrittons and Mr. Tillis, David and LeAnn Cale of Fort Myers, and over 100 volunteers from the Lee County Paleontological Society, along with students from the University of Tampa,” said Meers. What was found in the pond was a large deposit of Pleistocene fossils estimated to be between 400,000 and 800,000 years old. Over the course of the dig, specimens of a giant ground sloth (jaw, skulls and a complete pelvis — a unique find), a giant tortoise (bones and shell fragments), giant armadillos (assorted specimens), and various fossils from mammoths and mastodons (partial skulls, limb bones, vertebrae, teeth and tusks) were discovered,” said Meers, who explained that finds of this size are exceptionally rare. “There have been none like it since in Florida,” said Meers. All specimens were donated to the Florida Museum of Natural History, by Albritton, and are used by paleontologists from around the world. It goes to show that if you dig in the rich Florida earth, you might just find something of historical significance.