I didn’t go to Florida especially to look for fossils, but I am always looking for opportunities when I am abroad. Being an architect, I actually went there to study houses, in particular, the Art Deco district at Ocean Drive in Miami. However, it seems that every museum in the State (other than art museums) has a fossil exhibition: the Science museum in Miami was showing Chinese dinosaurs, the Orlando Science Centre had displays of Upper Cretaceous dinosaurs and the Natural History Museum in Gainesville had the very best – complete skeletons of mammals from Florida.
The result was that I spent a lot of time looking at things (including buildings) rather than finding fossils.
In fact, out of thirteen days in Florida, I spent three in or waiting for planes, four driving long distances (but with some stops checking out potential fossil sites), four looking at houses, one on paperwork for a report on buildings and only one full day looking for fossils. The time spent driving was a big surprise. Florida looks small on a map of USA, but all of Denmark (my home country) could fit into the area south of Gainesville and the Danish population is probably equal in number to half of the people living in Greater Miami.
However, I saw this trip as an expedition into unknown territory – a future trip will be different and better informed. But I did get some opportunity to look for fossils.
Fossil collecting in Florida
It is important to realise that, to collect fossils, you have to get a Florida Fossil Permit. Go on the Internet (http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/natsci/vertpaleo/vppermit.htm) and follow the instructions. Basically, you will need to fill in the form that you can print out and send it, together with a photocopy of your passport and a cheque for US$5, to the Florida Museum of Natural History. Ask to have a PDF copy of the permit sent to your email address. The museum prefers to send the original to an address in USA, so if you have friends or relatives in America who can be used for this purpose, so much the better.
Within a year of getting the permit, you will need to fill in a form, which you receive along with the permit, telling the museum what you have found and where you found it. On rare occasions, it may ask you to hand over specimens of great scientific value. In addition, there are rules about where you can legally collect fossils even when you have a permit. In particular, private ownership still overrules everything else. (This is America, after all.) So don’t even think of trespassing, as this can have severe consequences. The rules can be read on the homepage mentioned above.
So I did all that, I got my permit and off I went to Florida. The best time to go is from late December to early April when water levels in rivers are low, allowing for wading and sieving (see below). In addition, during these months, daytime temperatures are a pleasant 20 to 25oC (unlike the severe heat of a summer) and there is no risk being hit by a hurricane.