By Billy Cox
Published: Friday, October 29, 2010 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 at 11:04 p.m.
HARDEE COUNTY – Sarasota attorney Bill Harrison was walking his 700-acre ranch after a summer rain when something peculiar caught his eye. Erosion had sheared the face from a 6-foot sandy clay embankment overlooking a exposed a true mystery.
“When I saw that thing sticking out, I thought, ‘What in the world would Indians have been doing so deep down in those layers?’ It made me think maybe it was a piece of a big bull that had washed down the creek and bleached out.”
Harrison began digging around, and soon found another bone.
After he e-mailed photos to family members, friends and the University of Florida, his discovery in August was confirmed as the massive molar and scapula — part of the bony shoulder girdle — of a mammoth species believed to have died off 11,000 years ago.
For paleontologist Dr. Richard Hulbert, who has been recovering Florida fossils for 30 years, the find was a first.
“I’ve worked on mastodon digs and on much older sites,” said Hulbert, taking a break Wednesday afternoon beside a small stack of huge ribs embedded in the banks of the Peace River tributary meandering near Zolfo Springs in Hardee County. “And I’ve found mammoth bones here and there. But this is my first mammoth skeleton.”
A Columbian mammoth, to be exact, and among the last of the native North American elephants to go extinct.
Hulbert, collections manager of vertebrate paleontology with the Florida Museum of Natural History, visited the site in August, and Harrison agreed to donate the discovery to science.
Excavation began Oct. 18, after the water levels in Charlie Creek began to recede.
A descendant of the forest-dwelling Woolly Mammoth, the Columbian was a slightly larger prairie forager with longer legs. After having recovered 60 to 70 percent of the skeleton, Hulbert estimates this young adult stood 15 feet tall at the shoulders and weighed 3,000 to 4,000 pounds.
But its tusks are missing, as are parts of its pelvic bone, so its gender has yet to be determined.
With an assist from a backhoe and a front-end loader, two vanloads of material, including the skull, were hauled to Gainesville earlier this month. Bison, llama, and giant land tortoise fragments have also been recovered.
One femur was so big, it took up the entire scoop of a front-end loader.
“Oh, it’s been exciting,” says Harrison, a senior attorney with Williams Parker in Sarasota. “We’ve had all kinds of volunteers around here helping out. We’ve had an airline pilot, a school teacher from Jacksonville, a dentist and a Boy Scout. Some people really get hooked on this stuff.”
Hulbert says recruiting volunteers to help on digs is rarely a problem, but maintaining security on private property — and getting landowners to cooperate — can be dicey. Harrison’s donation, he says, marks only the second major Columbian skeleton recovered from Southwest Florida.
Hulbert points to the strata to illustrate the nature of luck in preservation. Had the elephant died a couple of feet in another direction, it would likely have decomposed quickly in a layer of powdered sand instead of in soil that allowed minerals to leach into and solidify its bones.
So far, this particular creature shows no sign of predation.
Climate change and encounters with early humans are believed to have contributed to the extinction of America’s indigenous pachyderms.
Recently, Hulbert analyzed a controversial piece of evidence suggestive of human-mammoth interaction and could find no sign of obvious fraud.
In 2009, a fossil collector named James Kennedy was cleaning off an ancient, 15-inch-long bone he recovered from a site in Vero Beach two years earlier when he discovered it had an etching of a mammoth on all fours, complete with curved tusks.
Smithsonian Institute paleontologists who examined the bone have also tentatively agreed that the etching, like the bone itself, is prehistoric.
“If it turns out to be what we think it is, it’s the oldest evidence of realistic art in North America,” Hulbert says.
The fossils recovered from Harrison’s property will be housed and studied at the Florida Museum of Natural History.