A 9-year-old boy created a sensation recently when he found a 5-inch-long prehistoric shark tooth on Egmont Key.
But to anyone with a long memory — say 20-million years or so — it should come as no surprise. Florida is an old seabed that spent eons beneath teeming ocean waters, several times over. Millions of sharks swam above, and many more of their teeth eventually sank to the bottom.
The former ocean floor is now lined with highways and studded with condominiums, but the jagged relics of ancient sharks still lie beneath our feet. And not just along the coast, but in places like Egmont Key or Venice.
"I can find them anywhere in Florida," said Michael Searle, head of the Tampa Bay Fossil Club.
Floridians also have found fossilized remains from other fish, as well as bones from land animals like horses, saber-toothed cats and mastodons. Still, there's a key difference with sharks.
"Over the entire lifetime of a shark, they can produce thousands and thousands of teeth," said Richard Hulbert, collections manager for vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. "Sometimes they've been referred to as tooth factories."
That's why prehistoric shark teeth are so plentiful, making them the classic Florida fossil.
"In the right place, you can, in just a matter of a few hours, find dozens of fossilized shark teeth … or if you're more lucky, whale or manatee-type fossils, giving you an idea of what was swimming over Florida thousands to millions of years ago," Hulbert said.
There are several hot spots in the state for shark teeth, including the "four corners" area of Hillsborough, Manatee, Hardee and Polk counties, various creeks north of Gainesville, the Jacksonville area and the beaches around Venice.
The Tampa Bay Fossil Club makes regular pilgrimages to the Peace River 50 miles inland because of the rich finds there. This time of year, they say, is good for fossil hunting before summer rains raise the river levels.
You also don't have to go far.
Searle said he went fossil hunting a few years ago, with permission, at the Safety Harbor construction site for an addition to Mease Countryside Hospital.
"We probably found hundreds and hundreds of shark teeth," Searle said, including one that was about 5 inches long. All in a single day.
That's not to say you can find shark teeth just anywhere. Fossil hunters, like gold diggers, expect to come up empty on some trips. And even when they do find shark teeth, they're usually not the awe-inspiring 5-inch choppers that belonged to a giant, extinct megalodon. Many fossil shark teeth would not cover your fingernail.
So can anyone guess how many shark teeth are in Florida?
"I couldn't even try," said Peter Harries, a geology professor at the University of South Florida. "A googol — I don't know. There's just a ton of them … more than Bill Gates has dollars."
Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or firstname.lastname@example.org.