Southwest Florida Is a Paleontologist’s Playground

With the recent discovery of an ancient burial site in the Gulf waters just off Manasota Key, we are reminded that Florida contains a treasure trove of information about early civilizations.  Curious locations like Warm Mineral Springs date back to the Ice Age, and Venice Beach, the “Shark Tooth Capital of the World,” is where many of us go to hunt for fossilized sharks’ teeth.

The Sarasota Post had the recent pleasure of speaking with Walter Stein, a paleontologist with over 20 year’s experience, who sheds some light on the natural wonders that surround us. He is deeply committed to his work and hopes to open a private paleontology museum in Southwest Florida.  If you would like more information on Walter or his “PaleoAdventures,” please visit http://www.paleoadventures.com/index.html

We hope you enjoy the interview, please comment below if you have any questions for Paleontologist Walter Stein. 

Can you talk about Paleontology and PaleoAdventures?  What drew you to this specific science?

Dinosaurs always fascinated me as a kid. I knew from the age of six that all I wanted to do was become a paleontologist and scratch around in the badlands all day looking for dead stuff. People would ask me in middle school what I wanted to do when I got older. When I turned to them and said, “hunt dinosaurs”, they’d looked at me funny. Little did they know I was serious. After college I worked for various geological companies and museums out west including the Wyoming Dinosaur Center and the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center, but I always wanted to do my own thing. I love to teach, but not in an institutional setting. My wife and I started PaleoAdventures back in 2005 after making a lot of other people rich and famous. I wanted to build a company that would give kids, like me (I’m still a big kid), the unique opportunity to do real paleontological field work. I wanted something that was more serious than dusting sand off plastic or planted bones. I wanted the real deal and that is what PaleoAdventures is. 

Can you discuss the importance of Little Salt Springs and Warm Mineral Springs, as well as other important areas in Florida?

Paleontologist at work.At one point, we were trying to convince the city of North Port and Sarasota County to build a museum and interpretive center at Warm Mineral Springs and/or Little Salt Springs. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very successful, which is a shame, because both of those sites are truly world class paleontological sites. Both contain mammoth and giant ground sloth bones. Few of the swimmers at Warm Mineral Springs realize this, but 45 feet down on a ledge is a complete saber tooth cat skeleton and relatively complete giant ground sloth. There are also a good deal of human remains from early Native Americans. These date back to well over 14,000 years ago. Very few people are aware of it, but Florida is one of the best places in the world to study paleontology. The rocks below our feet contain a plethora of Cenozoic and ice age mammals, fossil fish and shark teeth, whale bones, dire wolves, giant armadillos, and others. The Peace River is known all over the world for its large quantity of fossils, including the extinct Carcharocles megalodon.  Megalodon was a 50 ft. long behemoth of a shark that fed on whales. By studying the Peace River and how it helps concentrate and distribute these fossil bones today, helps me when looking at the sedimentary rocks of the 66-million-year-old Hell Creek Formation back in SD. The environment of the Hell Creek Formation would have been very similar to northern FL millions of years ago. The rivers that deposited the dinosaur bones were very similar to the how the Peace River deposits the bones and shark teeth of the Bone Valley Formation.

Do you see an uptick or decline in students’ interest in paleontology today?  What can parents do to fuel a desire for digging and discovering in their children?  What drew you to devoting a major portion of your life to paleontology?

I think kids today are just as fascinated with dinosaurs as I was back in the 1970’s and 1980’s. I have spoken to hundreds of kids who go through the “dinosaur phase” and for some the “disease” doesn’t wear off. The trouble is there is very little money in paleontology and very few jobs. To become a professional paleontologist takes a lot of formal training and most jobs require at least a master’s degree to even be considered. There are only about 2,000-3,000 professional vertebrate paleontologists in the United States and Canada. So, the chances of getting into the field are slim. You must be absolutely determined and stubborn to have a shot. To increase the chances, parents should help their kids by spending lots of time in museums and encouraging reading and writing about science, fossils and ancient life. It also helps to volunteer at local museums and universities or join fossil clubs like the Tampa Bay Fossil Club or the Southwest Florida Fossil Society.

What is cool in paleontology today?

What is this? Ask a paleontologist!There are lots of cool new discoveries currently being made in the field and lots more we still do not understand yet. Everything from feathered dinosaurs and dino eggs to using various geochemical techniques to determine coloration patterns, behavior, or age.  Ultimately, we hope to someday build a small, private paleontology museum in the Southwest Florida area where we can show off all our cool discoveries. Between our South Dakota/Montana/Wyoming dinosaurs and the amazing fossil specimens that can be found right here, I think that we could really put together something that was world class. To build it though, takes a whole lot of capital and our small company alone just doesn’t have the money (hint hint investors… lol!) to get the real estate.  I think this area has an incredible need for an educational resource like that, so we’re working towards it. 

Photos courtesy of PaleoAdventures.com

 

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2018-04-25