What was Florida like 5 million years ago? Fossil site offers ‘window to the past’

A fossil site has offered researchers a “window into the past” by revealing what life was like in North Florida more than 5 million years ago.

The Montbrook site, which is about 25 miles south of Gainesville, is home to a wide variety of fossils, including a “once-in-a-lifetime” discovery of a complete skeleton of a gomphothere, a prehistoric relative of elephants.

“It’s a first for the state and certainly the most impressive specimen of this animal to have been found east of the Rocky Mountains,” Jonathan Bloch, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Museum of Natural History, told the McClatchy News on May 30. from Florida.

Although paleontologists have been excavating at the site since 2015, they discovered parts of the gomphothere skeleton in 2022 and finished excavating the last bits over Memorial Day weekend, Bloch said.

The only other skeletons of this particular species, which is part of the Rhynchotherium genus, have been found at a site in southern California, Bloch said. Also, finding a complete skeleton is already incredibly rare, he said.

“You just have to be very lucky to find something like this,” he said.

These prehistoric elephants had four tusks, instead of two like today’s elephants, and they also had spiral “enamel ribbons,” Bloch said.

Gomphotheres first evolved in Africa about 23 million years ago, then began moving to Europe and Asia, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History. Since 16 million years ago, they lived in North America before crossing into South America after a land bridge was raised above sea level in the Panama area about 2.7 million years ago.

A fossil site about 25 miles south of Gainesville in Florida has revealed a snapshot of life in the area 5.5 million years ago.

A fossil site about 25 miles south of Gainesville in Florida has revealed a snapshot of life in the area 5.5 million years ago.

The Montbrook fossils are about 5.5 million years old and offer a snapshot of life in an ancient river deposit, Bloch said.

Other discoveries include the oldest known skull of a smilodontine saber-toothed cat, which Bloch described as an “iconic” saber-toothed cat like the character Diego from the movie “Ice Age.”

The paleontologists also unearthed the oldest recorded fossils of swans, flamingos and quail, as well as a new species of alligator, Bloch said. Not to mention the remains of llamas, camels and “stubby” legged rhinos.

But because many of the animals that fossilized at the site had been carried there by currents, the researchers didn’t think they would find complete skeletons, like the gomphothere discovered.

“What’s amazing about fossils is that sometimes it’s way beyond what you ever imagined,” he said. “The fossil record constantly startles and amazes you.”

Studying the past can also give us important information about our future, Bloch said. As scientists begin to think about how climate change and sea level rise will affect Florida’s ecosystems, they can look at fossil sites like Montbrook to examine what habitat was like when sea levels and temperatures were much lower. tall.

“The past can be a small example for us, almost like an experiment going back in time,” he said.

Because Florida’s hot, humid summers are not conducive to digging, the researchers will cover the Montbrook site for the next few months and reopen it sometime in the fall. In the meantime, they will continue to work on preparing the gomphothere skeleton at the University of Florida laboratory for eventual display at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

“We are opening a window to the past that hasn’t been opened before,” Bloch said.

He also encouraged people who aren’t paleontologists to look for fossils in their own backyards.

“Keep your eyes open,” he said, “because there are fossils all around us and you can be part of the process of documenting history.”

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