Shark teeth from Florida 2003


My friend Mike Zagielski and I went to Florida to collect fossils. A little background: I’m from Connecticut, and the only experience I have with alligators is watching --- on TV --- their Nile crocodile relatives pull down healthy wildbeest in Africa. I have to admit a bit of apprehension related to wading through Florida rivers and streams in search of shark teeth. Before our trip, I read a website on fossiling in Florida that mentioned the abundance of alligators in the area and how “...none of them were impressed with human swimming abilities.” For this reason, we tried to book a guided trip, but there were none running the days we were there. So we drove to the Peace river in Arcadia, Florida on our own.


When we got there, you can imagine how relieved I was to see about a dozen people (mothers, fathers, and kids) collecting fossils in the river. For whatever reason, there seemed to be no gators in this part of the river. We got out of the car and scouted the area. The first thing we saw was a 7 or 8 foot alligator lying on the opposite bank. Mike and I had a tense conversation re: the size of the reptile, its distance from us, whether or not we were already in trouble, and what in the world the people were doing chest deep in the water a total of maybe 150 feet away.


I decided to ask some questions. Everyone I talked to said the same thing: gators are afraid of people. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. Of course, everyone I spoke to was also drunk. But Mike and I put the gator out of our minds and joined the crowd. We scooped gravel into our screens and sifted all kinds of fossils from the Peace River. In time, we were chest deep in the river in search of better fossils. We found lots of small shark teeth, turtle shell fragments, a three-toed horse tooth and more.


Half way through the day, a two year old girl drifted past me unconscious and face down. Some guy next to me saw her first and --- beer in hand --- jumped off his cooler and yelled. I looked up, saw the girl and immediately thought a gator must have pulled her in. Of course she had just fallen in, but I still had gators on my mind. The weird thing is she never made a sound and never struggled. At any rate, her father ran past me and pulled her out. Her mother screamed and yelled “Is she breathing?” The father said yes, but the real answer was no. Fortunately, the girl suddenly jerked and coughed up a ton of water and then woke up. Within twenty minutes or so, everything was back to normal: the mother was collecting teeth, the father was no where to be seen, and 3 to 5 small kids were running amok in the mud. It was very surreal.


At the end of the day, a guy from Maryland gave Mike and me directions to another fossil spot in Arcadia. We got up early the next day and bushwacked our way downstream trying to find a gravel bank with fossils. We had no idea what we were doing, but we put all thoughts of water mocasins and alligators out of our minds. On the way, I stepped into a nest of fire ants (not fun) and found this real cool grasshopper. Mike and I were just about fed up with the whole thing when we bumped into Scott, another collector. He showed us a gravel bank he was working and gave us a few pointers. We found a few small teeth and were happy.


But the water was high and very fast and you couldn’t see anything because it was so brown. Every now and then Scott put a mask and snorkel on, stuck his head in the water, and said ’Man, I don’t like that. I can’t see anything.’ I asked him about gators and told him how everyone said they weren’t a problem. He said that’s what everyone says, but they just don’t have much experience. He’d seen several in this very creek. In fact, twice he had turned around under water with his snorkel and found them stalking him. Great. I could have stayed home and collected nearly the same teeth in New Jersey --- without feeling like a prey item.


After a while, Scott left and Mike and I collected on our own. At first, Mike and I were really into it. We were determined to collect at least one of the big teeth Scott had told us were there, just out of reach in the deep water. I started working into deeper and deeper water with my shovel. It was really comical. The current was so strong that I kept floating downstream while I was trying to lift the shovel. About half the time the shovel came up empty because the current swept everything away before I got it to the surface. I was up to my shoulders in the water and Mike was having trouble keeping his chin dry. He held the screen. I filled it. It worked well to a point: we actually found another tiger shark tooth, a mako shark tooth, and a really cool alligator tooth.


But we had already been there 4 hours and with each minute without Scott, the gator jokes seemed less funny. Mike was ready to go home. I was too. But, as I said, I was determined. I decided to walk out into a little deeper water and feel around with my feet (in sandals). To keep me from getting bored, Mike kept telling me stories about how gators like to hang out under water waiting for something to get too close. Especially under logs like the one next to me (friends make any trip just that much more exciting). At any rate, almost immediately I felt all kinds of fossils. BIG fossils. If I had known more, I could have recognized them as just dugong rib bones and ignored them. But I didn’t know what they were and I had to see. So I handed Mike the shovel, told hime to keep it buried in the ground right where it was (to mark a spot) and then I dove in. No snorkel, no fins, no mask. Just me. I couldn’t see anything. I scooped my hands across the bottom and hoped I wouldn’t cut myself to ribbons on a broken bottle or whatever. I came up with some big rib bones and other pieces of turtle shell, etc.


Not really all that exciting. But I kept telling Mike that the big pieces were in the same place the big teeth would be. Mike, of course, already knew this. I was really trying to talk myself into believing we had a chance of finding something. Mike thought I was crazy. He was sure I’d come up missing a finger or maybe not even come up at all after getting snagged under a tree branch. But I was throwing things into his screen and it was fun. I dumped another load into his screen and before I got back under he shoved the screen at me and said “Can you see this tooth?” There it was, a baby meg tooth. It was only about an inch, but it was my first and I was excited.


Not satisfied, excited. We put the tooth away and I dove some more. After maybe 15 more dives, it happened. I dumped a handful of what I thought were just ribs and rocks into the screen and Mike just yelled “Hoh!”. At first I thought he saw a gator (I was getting more spooked with each dive). But it wasn’t a gator --- it was a 3 inch tooth from Carcharodon megaladon. And a beauty.


We started laughing and high fiving and stood our prize in the sandy river bank for safe keeping. Gators? What gators! I wanted more teeth! I dove back in a couple of times and refilled the screen Mike was holding. Then I saw the look in Mike’s eyes. I said “Do you want to dive?” He said “Yes!”, took off his glasses, and was in the water so fast I was hoping there was a gator there to see it: THAT gator would have been impressed with THIS human’s swimming abilites --- can you say ’adrenalin rush?’


While Mike was diving and I was holding the screen I realized how ridiculous the whole thing was. Mike had on bright white sneakers. When his feet were LESS than a foot underwater, I could not see his sneakers. Really. The water was that brown. There were downed trees, roots, branches, all kinds of potential snags made all the more difficult by a current so strong you could hardly swim against it. But boy did we have fun. All of a sudden, Mike came up with only one thing in each hand. I could tell from the look on his face he knew what he had: another big tooth. I was impressed! I wished I had felt my big tooth before I dumped it into the screen.


A few more dives netted us our third tiger shark tooth of the day. Then it happened AGAIN. I came up with a big a handful of who-knew-what but I didn’t even get to the basket before I saw it: a nearly perfect two inch tooth. What a day! We spent another hour or so but we were both tired. Besides it was getting late and Mike (who had kept saying all day how the stream was so swift and the banks were so steep there weren’t any gators) made it known that there was no way he was going to hike out at dusk when he couldn’t see where he was going and the gators were getting ready to hunt. So we left. Of course we took our goodies and, man, what memories. We didn’t do any more fossil collecting, but we’re already talking about next year...


Wow! My first meg tooth! And it’s a beauty!


This is a nice sized fossil gator tooth.