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Several ankle and foot bones of gomphotheres – extinct relatives of elephants, were found during excavation at the Montbrook Fossil Dig site in Levy County, Florida.
LEVY COUNTY, Fla. — About five and a half million years ago, several gomphotheres – extinct relatives of elephants, died in or near a river in North Florida. Their bodies were all deposited in a single location, entombed alongside other animals that had met a similar fate.
Today, the river no longer exists, but the fossils it left behind have offered paleontologists a panoramic view of life in prehistoric Florida. Last year, scientists and volunteers began excavating the site at Montbrook Fossil Dig in Levy County, Florida, and found the extinct gomphotheres in what is likely a record-breaking discovery.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime find,” said Jonathan Bloch, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, in a news release. “It’s the most complete gomphothere skeleton from this time period in Florida and among the best in North America.”
Bloch and his team began discovering portions of a gomphothere skeleton early in the spring of 2022, finding isolated foot bones.
“I started coming upon one after another of toe and ankle bones,” said Dean Warner, a retired chemistry teacher and Montbrook volunteer. “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.”
The discovery uncovered not just one, but several complete skeletons, including one adult and at least seven juveniles. The research team will need to full excavate the specimens before they can accurately determine their size, but Bloch estimates the adult was eight feet tall at the shoulders. With the tusks included, the skull measures over nine feet in length.
It’s likely the fossils were deposited or transported to the area, according to Rachel Narducci, collection manager of vertebrate paleontology at the Florida Museum.
“We’ve never seen anything like this at Montbrook,” Narducci said. “Usually we find just one part of a skeleton at this site. The gomphotheres must have been buried quickly, or they may have been caught in a curve of the river where the flow was reduced.”
The big find has prompted officials to show the public a viewing of the discovery.
“The best part has been to share this process of discovery with so many volunteers from all over the state of Florida,” Bloch said. “Our goal is to assemble this gigantic skeleton and put it on display, taking its place alongside the iconic [Woolly] mammoth and mastodon already at the Florida Museum of Natural History.”