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Shark teeth: Jaw-dropping finds abound in Florida

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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 ckrueger@sptimes.com.

>>fast facts

Where to find shark teeth

• Probably the best place for a novice to go is Sarasota County, especially to Venice Beach or Casperson Beach. Get an old colander or a screen. Walk into the water and look for a small ridge of sand where the waves break. Sift the sand like you're panning for gold. Fossilized shark teeth will usually be black. Many are smaller than a fingernail.

• The Peace River also is known as a good place for finding fossils, including shark teeth. Here are two spots near Arcadia, in De Soto County: De Soto Park on State Road 70 on the west side of the Peace River just west of Arcadia; and Brownville Park, which can be found by driving 6 or 7 miles north of downtown Arcadia on State Road 17 and turning left on Brownville Street. Follow the safety tips below.

• To learn more, visit the Tampa Bay Fossil Club. It meets on the first Saturday of the month in Room 103 of the Behavioral Sciences Building at the University of South Florida in Tampa. A fossil-hunting trip to the Peace River is scheduled for May 17, weather permitting. For more information, go to tampabayfossilclub.com.

Safety tips: Don't hunt in rivers unless the water is less than waist deep. As summer rains set in, the rivers will rise too high for safe searching. Wear old tennis shoes in the water. If you go with children, supervise them at all times. Remember: the ancient sharks are dead, but alligators and snakes are very much alive, so watch out for them. Try to find an experienced fossil hunter to come with you the first couple of times.

FINDING OTHER FOSSILS: If you are hunting for fossils other than shark teeth, you generally need a permit from the state. More information is available at flmnh.ufl.edu/vertpaleo/vppermit.htm.

Shark teeth: Jaw-dropping finds abound in Florida 05/06/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 7, 2008 9:29am]
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