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Man unearths bits of prehistoric manatee cousin

Frank Garcia holds a vertebra from a prehistoric manatee, left, and a vertebra from a similar creature called a dugong at right. He discovered a kind of dugong.

SKIP O\u2019ROURKE | Times\uFEFF

Frank Garcia holds a vertebra from a prehistoric manatee, left, and a vertebra from a similar creature called a dugong at right. He discovered a kind of dugong.

RUSKIN

Local paleontologist Frank Garcia's name will be immortalized in the history books, right next to a description of the small manatee-like creature he helped discover.

He's proud of Nanosiren garciae because it took him decades to find about 70 pieces of fossil. In June, scientists finally had enough to publish an article about this long-extinct Caribbean sea cow. The name was official, a professor told Garcia last Friday.

In the late 1960s, Garcia found some of the animal's bones in deep pits dug by Mosaic, a phosphate mining company. He kept searching for several more decades, gathering bone fragments from pits in Polk and Hardee counties, as well as the Fort Lonesome area of southeast Hillsborough County, and sending them to the Smithsonian Institution.

Daryl Domning, a professor of anatomy at Howard University, started piecing together the 6-foot animal.

Though they didn't have a full skeleton, Domning could tell it was different from anything found before. The fossils were small, yet its bone structure and teeth showed it was full-grown. And at only 6 feet long, it didn't compare to the other sea cows, which were double its size, Domning said.

"We knew it wasn't like anything else, but there wasn't anything more we could say about it until we got more complete material, like a skull," he said. "It took a long time for that to be found."

It took several decades, but Domning, Garcia and other amateur paleontologists pulled together enough evidence to finally convince the scientific community that this small dugong — a cousin of the manatee — is unique.

"I spent so many hours, dug so many holes and walked so many miles of phosphate mines," said Garcia of Ruskin. "This means a lot to me."

Domning said this species probably lived about 5-million years ago in the Caribbean. It most likely became extinct when north and south America were connected, about 3-million years ago, he said.

The Isthmus of Panama cut off the Caribbean from the Indian Ocean and southwest Pacific Ocean, the only place dugongs are found today.

Nanosiren garciae would have looked different from the Florida manatee, which can grow up to 14 feet, because it had a dolphin-like tail rather than a paddle. It also had tusks about an inch long, Domning said.

"Probably to root at the bottom," he said. "They were sea grass eaters."

The fossils will go to the Smithsonian Institution and the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, Domning said.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

Man unearths bits of prehistoric manatee cousin 07/03/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 7, 2008 10:34am]
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