Elephants in Florida!
Tales of Island Life: August 2023
The elephants recently discovered were not circus animals but early ancestors of today’s elephants, the gomphotheres, who died in Florida about 5-1/2 million years ago. Their bones were found in the spring of 2022 in Montbrook, an area southwest of Gainesville, where the Florida Museum of Natural History was conducting a dig. A retired chemistry teacher who volunteers on the dig, Dean Warner, describes the find, “I started coming upon one after another toe and ankle bones. As I continued to dig, what turned out to be the ulna and radius started to be uncovered. We all knew that something special had been found.”
In fact, what Warner had found were the complete skeletons of one adult and at least seven juveniles. Finding complete skeletons is one of the things that makes this a very unique find. Jonathon Bloch, curator of vertebrate paleontology, estimates that the adult was eight foot tall at the shoulder. Its skull including tusks is over nine feet in length. The researchers believe that the skeletons were deposited here at different times by a no longer existing river. Other finds in Montbrook include the oldest deer in North America, the oldest known skull of a smilodontine sabertoothed cat, bone-crushing dogs, short-faced bears and an extinct heron.
Researchers and volunteers have been working at Montbrook since 2015 when Eddie Hodge who owned the property contacted the Museum about fossils he’d found. The land is fine sand and compacted clay and fossils have been found up to nine feet below the surface. Today the area is located about 30 miles from the Gulf of Mexico but in the late Miocene when the bones were deposited, temperatures and sea levels were much higher than today. This means that the fossils of ancient land animals are encased next to fresh and saltwater fish as well as turtles, alligators, burrowing shrimp and occasionally a shark.
Rachel Narducci, collection manager of vertebrate paleontology at the Museum, says, “We generally know what mastodons and woolly mammoths looked like, but gomophotheres had a variety of body sizes, and the shape of their tusks differed widely between species.” Some had upper tusks plus a second set attached to their lower jaws. Bloch adds, “Our goal is to assemble this gigantic skeleton and put it on display, taking its place alongside the iconic mammoth and mastodon at the Florida Museum of Natural History.”
The Florida Museum of Natural History is located in Gainesville at the University of Florida Cultural Plaza and is open daily. Its website is floridamuseum.ufl.edu