Sloth Creek Expedition
Written in 1996
I call this place "True Civilization."
To me, nothing compares to fossiling in Florida's creeks, especially those that are shallow enough to snorkel. In the southwestern part of the state where I live, these creeks contain some of the most interesting fossils to be found.
The creeks themselves offer unparalleled beauty. Their banks are often 15-20 feet high and lined with sturdy oaks, old growth cypress trees and sky-reaching cabbage palms. They so resemble eras gone by that I half expect to run face-to-face with a proud Calusa Indian or a ferocious sabercat.
Stumbling onto great finds may seem like a talent reserved for only a few amateur paleontologists among the thousands, but I'm a walking testament to the fact that skill ain't everything. If someone as lanky and uncalculating as I am can find really cool stuff, I figure anybody can. But that doesn't mean it's easy. Finding the good stuff is 1% skill, 9% luck and 90% persistence.
I've had to hike several miles up or down creeks, in the water, along their banks, through thorns and thick saw palmetto shrubs, and over and under barbed-wire fences (being careful to get permission from the owner first). All this while wearing a steaming hot wetsuit and carrying food, water, mask and snorkel, as well as a fossil net (hopefully full of bones and teeth on the return trip).
Have you ever noticed that when your hands are full is when those pesky horseflies and mosquitoes realize you're the most vulnerable? Fortunately, the occasional alligator or snake I have encountered have not been quite as observant.
Overall, the hardships have been well worth the spoils. For instance, one creek that I have become intimately familiar with and for which I have sweated off countless pounds of fat, almost always gives up wonderful finds. There are pockets every half mile or so that are so rich in fossil material the bones and teeth appear to have been dumped there by the truckload.
My first day in this particular creek, in an area about the size of an average living room, I picked up 44 ancient horse teeth, 7 glyptodont (VW-size armadillo) bony armor plates, 8 mako shark teeth, 25 alligator teeth, umpteen turtle shell fragments, 4 whale vertebrae, 2 whale teeth, 7 pottery shards, 12 deer antler fragments, 7 barracuda teeth, 6 snaggletooth shark teeth, 3 great white shark teeth, 4 whale ear bones, garfish scales and various other fossils. Days like this make an amateur bonesmith such as myself ecstatic.
I have had other days equally rewarding in the same creek. However, none have been quite as exciting for me as a day in late December of 1992. I had a friend with me and we had trudged about two miles up a part of the creek I had never explored. We started out at 8:00 a.m., and it was now pushing dusk. When we finished, we would still have to make a two-mile trek back to the car.
We were both frustrated because we hadn't found anything yet, not even a modern turtle shell fragment. My friend was even more frustrated because my legs were considerably longer than hers and I tend to walk fast. Finally, she suggested I go ahead without her for the final quarter mile. So off I went. I was just about to call it quits when I noticed a few small black bone fragments in two feet of water, just downstream from a bend. I donned my mask, laid down in the creek and began inching my way upstream.
After several feet the bone fragments increased in number and size. Still, I couldn't identify any of them. They were too badly splintered. Then, off to my left a few feet, my peripheral vision caught a large black object sticking out of the sand. Accustomed to coming across submerged tree trunks, I casually scraped the object with my finger nail. But this time, instead of sinking into soft, water-logged wood, my nails met with resistance.
Having been fooled many times into thinking I had found a large bone that turned out to be wood or metal, I still didn't get excited. Feeling a little irritated that I wasn't able to quickly confirm my suspicions, I began to dig around the object. Before long, I had freed it from its watery grave. It was only t hen that I realized I had half of what appeared to be a huge leg bone. Was it from a mammoth? A mastodon?
To date, it was my largest find and the adrenaline surged through my body. I stuck my hand through the sand where I found the bone and felt something else hard that my finger nails couldn't gouge. When I worked it out and held it up, I knew right away what I had found. In my hand was a claw core, or toenail, over 18 inches long. It belonged to an Eremotherium, the largest of the sloths, and the biggest land animal ever to live in Florida.
I came up out of the water screaming like a passionate lover, "Yes! Yes! Yes!"
I sprinted back to my friend, clutching the claw in my hand. "Guess what I found?" I asked her excitedly, hiding the claw behind my back. When I showed it to her, she recognized immediately that it was from one heck of a large sloth.
We hurried back to the spot to see if there were more bones buried in the sand. There were, but it was fast getting dark and extremely difficult to see. I hated to leave, but the search would have to continue the following morning.
That night, I slept with the claw next to my pillow. Throughout the night, I kept waking up and touching the claw to make sure I hadn't dreamed the whole thing.
We arrived at daybreak, blowing the sand away with our hands in about two feet of water. Everywhere we fanned, there were large chunks of black bone. By the time the day ended, we had found several hundred pounds of sloth, including a second claw core at 15 inches, 3 tibias (which meant there was more than one animal!), parts of a humerus, 17 vertebrae, broken ribs, finger bones, bowling ball-size ankle bones, part of the jaw with 3 teeth embedded, countless partial teeth and part of its snout. All this in an area about the size of bachelor's bedroom.
In the midst of the bones was a cabbage palm tree that appeared to have recently washed out of the banks. Perhaps the sloth was under the tree roots in the bank, or was already in the creek and the tree produced a wash-out effect around the bones.
Scattered under the bones were a number of alligator teeth. Were they lost feeding on the carcass? Or did they exist at a different time - perhaps 10 thousand years later - and just happen to get washed into the same location?
Also, within a mile of the same site, I discovered evidence of a smaller species of sloth - either a megalonyx or glossotherium. Sticking out of the creek bank within a short distance from each other was a tibia and ankle bone, as well as two smaller 4-inch claw cores and a sloth tooth.
In the same area was a very unusual C. megalodon tooth. It had a hole drilled through the root from both sides, narrowing toward the middle. The outside edges of the tooth were sanded flat. Perhaps it was worn as a pendant by an early native American? (I later turned it over to the Florida Museum of Natural History.)
When I found the sloth, I kept hoping to find evidence that humans had somehow been involved in the kill, but there were no unusual markings on the bone. Still, I was awestruck that my human eyes were probably the first to have seen this extinct herbivore since it died.
My wife Marisa painted a life-size mural of the Eremotherium, or giant ground sloth, based on the bones I uncovered.
The largest of these two claw cores is just over 18 inches - and it's a herbivore! Vegetarians rule!!
Over half of the 14 ft. tall sloth was recovered in about two feet of water. Here, I'm kneeling down fanning through the sand, pulling up bones and setting them on the sand bar in the background.
Two tibias…three were found all together so we know there was more than one sloth that died here.
Eremotherium tiba (14 ft. tall animal) and megalonyx or glossitherium tibia (bull size animal)
Astragalus (ankle bones) the size of bowling balls
Jaw with 7 inch teeth, as well as a broken tooth out of the jaw
130 Glyptodont (VW-Bug size armadillo) scutes found near sloth.
Whale atlas vertebra found in same creek.