TAMPA — Nathaniel Toler's eyes locked on the bone-white skull of the giant prehistoric crocodile sitting in the glass case Saturday morning.
The 8-year-old student from Spring Hill's Challenger School of Science and Mathematics scanned the brightly lit case, searching for his last clue for the scavenger hunt at the Tampa Bay Fossil Club's FossilFest 2009, Florida — Land of the Lost, at the Florida State Fairgrounds.
When he turned in his green sheet, he got a sandwich bag of tiny fossils that club members had donated for the event.
But club president Michael Searle is hoping this year's expected 2,500 participants take away more than that.
"We're here to educate and promote paleontology to people in the community," Searle said. "We want them to know that we exist."
Vendors came from around the country to show off their finds for sale. Artifacts are priced anywhere $15 to more than $200, depending on what you're looking to collect. There are also lectures on how to start digging and discussions of ancient Americans.
Local artifacts, such as the giant crocodile skull, were found by fossil club members and displayed in wooden cases in the rear of the exhibit hall.
One of the most popular vendors booths belonged to South Carolina's H&T Fossils, which displayed "the largest shark tooth in the world."
"The biggest one ever found was measured at seven inches for a shark that would be the size of a school bus," said Henry Crowley, one of the business owners and a contributor to the Discovery Channel.
He and his partner said that diving in zero visibility water off the coast of South Carolina to find fossils isn't a booming business, but they do it anyway.
"With what we sell, it basically pays for the diving and traveling we do," Crowley said.
But Searle said there is a future in paleontology for the dedicated.
"Two of our girls that joined the club as kids now attend Montana State University to study in their world-renowned program," Searle said.
And for families, FossilFest offers a casual learning experience too.
Angel Thompson, of Brandon, watched as her two sons, 10-year-old Garrett and 7-year-old Treyce, raced around the indoor sandbox, plucking out plastic bag fulls of artifacts donated by club members.
Once the children's digging time was up, they could take it to a table where volunteers identified what they'd found, and let them take home the bags full of spoils. Turtle shells and small bone fossils had been "unearthed" for study.
She said the boys' school, Symmes Elementary in Riverview, sent home a flier for FossilFest because the students are studying fossils in science this semester.
"So this was right on time to help them in school," she said.
But she wasn't sure what would happen once they got home with all they're new treasures. "Hopefully it stays in the bag," she laughed.
Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or email@example.com.