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Clewiston Museum Gets Major Fossil Exhibit

by Mark Renz

In the summer of 2000, I was driving from my home in Lehigh Acres, to LaBelle about 15-20 miles away. Enroute, I noticed a big pile of dirt on the side of the road. Nearby was a retention pond the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) had just dug out for road-water run-off.

Poking around in the piles, I noticed reddish brown fragments of bone. So I looked to the source, the pond itself, and bellied my way down to the bottom. The soupy brown mud was only a few feet deep, so I raccooned with my hands, feeling around for the familiar texture of fossil bone. Within minutes I had unearthed a mammoth femur over 4 feet long, plus ribs, vertebrae and other bones. I suspected the site was rich and contacted FDOT for permission to excavate.

An enthusiastic Shone Phillips, who was then director of FDOT's LaBelle Operations Center, immediately agreed to the excavation. Phillips, his tireless employees and their families, volunteered for countless hours of digging during their off-time. Friend Steve Bufter and I enlisted the help of nearly 100 additional volunteers, many of whom were members of the Fossil Club of Lee County.

The rest is prehistory.

The excavation lasted 18 months. Twelve partial mammoths and mastodons were uncovered, as well as jaws and bones of dozens of llamas and horses. The horse is a new Florida species.

My plan at the time was to make sure everything was turned over to the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville first. FLMNH is the official state repository for vertebrate fossils. Once the bones had been interpreted and scientific information extrapolated, my second plan was for FLMNH to permanently loan the material to an appropriate museum in Hendry County. I first tried to arrange for an exhibit in LaBelle, but in spite of a gallant two-year effort by the local historical society, we failed to find a suitable facility. About that time, the Clewiston Museum's new director Butch Wilson approached me about donating fossils for their facility. Wahlah!

The new exhibit is a great example of professional and amateur fossil collectors working together for the greater public good. Scientists and residents of all Florida benefit from the information gleaned from the bones and the exhibit will be a great educational tool for schools in Hendry County. People driving from one coast to the other will have one more great reason to spend time in Clewiston.

At the time of this posting, the mammoth, mastodon, sloth, horse, camel and shark fossils are ready for public viewing. Still to come: Murals, photos and other interpretive material for the walls and the 10 million year-old dugong (manatee cousin) I stumbled onto in a Polk County phosphate mine.

Photos related to LaBelle dig site…fossils in Clewiston Museum Click here .

Scroll down at this site to see “Giants in the Storm“ book about LaBelle site.Click here .

Article and photos about Everglades giant ground sloth bones in Clewiston Museum.Click here .

Story about Arcadia giant ground sloth bones in Clewiston Museum. Click here .


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