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Professor Strikes it Rich

Published: April 28, 2002
What would a UT professor see in the flat south-central Florida wilderness of Hendry County?  Bones, tusks and teeth.  For Dr. Mason Meers, assistant professor of biology, that’s more than reason enough to dig Hendry County, which he and a team of volunteers have been doing since last year.

When a farm manager expanding a watering hole found a large bone too big to belong to the forebears of his cattle, he called the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, which in turn contacted the paleontological society in Lee County, which borders on Hendry County.  The quest for info on the origin of the discovered item led to the desk of Meers, then teaching at Florida Gulf Coast University in Ft. Myers.


Since then, he and his team, which includes UT biology majors Samantha Wiley and Betty Medina, have devoted spring break and a lot of weekends to unearthing myriad natural treasures from the site, which has yielded the bones, teeth and tusks of mastodons, mammoths, giant ground sloths, tapirs, llamas, camels, giant tortoises and horses from the mid-Pleistocene era, 200,000-500,000 years ago.


The spring-fed pond, continually pumped out during the short February-April dig season, is was uncommonly productive, with a major find by one team member or another every few minutes.  The site also is significant, Meers says, in terms of the time period being discovered.  Both later and earlier eras have been found in abundance, but this find bolsters a relative paucity of material from its time.


“It’s exceptionally productive.  I’d say right now it’s the most productive site being worked in Florida,” Meers says.  “The amount—just the volume of material is tremendous, and species diversity is pretty high, also.”


“It falls in a time period when we don’t have a lot of fossil sites in Florida,” agrees Dr. Richard Hulbert of the Florida Museum of Natural History.  “There are only two or three other sites known, and none them are this far south, so we’re getting a picture of what southwest Florida looked like half a million years ago.”


Pending funding and the land owners’ continued generosity, Meers and crew plan to resume digging at the site next February.  An exhibit containing several specimens from last year’s digs opened April 20 at the Ft. Myers Historical Museum.


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