Property appraiser Bryan Roberts is a trained geologist and vice president of the 20-year-old Manasota Fossil Club
Correction: Bryan Roberts' last name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.
VENICE — Truth be told, Bryan Roberts would rather be digging for fossils out west in, say, Wyoming’s Green River formation, and it’s easy to see why.
One year, he returned with an absolute trophy — richly detailed, skeletal imprints of two fish, embedded in the same Eocene sedimentary layer. Though one appears to be chasing the other, their deaths were most likely “several thousand years” apart. Recognizing nature’s artwork when he sees it, Robertson converted the octagonal stone slab into a one-of-a-kind coffeetable at his home in Sarasota.
These sorts of specimens aren’t typically available in Florida, a geological newcomer sitting atop a foundation of porous limestone.
While rich in the remains of creatures that began expanding into the Florida land mass some 30 million years after the dinosaur extinction, the state’s endless cycles of sea level rise and fall have left behind a stratigraphic mess, churning marine-life and land-dweller fossils into a veritable laundry basket of rocky potpourri. “You can go to Manasota Beach,” Roberts says, “and get a horse tooth and a shark tooth in the same scoop.”
Roberts, 63, is a property appraiser, trained geologist and vice president of the 20-year-old Manasota Fossil Club, which usually convenes its monthly meetings at a condo clubhouse in Venice. But recently, MFC held its final meeting of the 2018-19 season at Fire Station 53, 5300 E. Laurel Road in Nokomis, before taking its summer break.
Just what the MFC crowd will be returning with in the fall to show off and sell is anyone’s guess. Many of the club’s 50-some dues-paying members ($5 a year) are hardcores who will go west in search of far more ancient fauna and flora than what Florida offers. The hobby can be pricey. Roberts pays $100 a day to work the Green River quarry. But over a five-day span, he hauled in more than 100 fossil fish dating back 50 million years.
Frankly, says Roberts, Sunshine State fossil hunters don’t have that many options. The only designated quarry he knows within a reasonable distance is in Brooksville, 50 miles north of Tampa, and it’s fairly monotonous. “Sea biscuits are about all you’ll find up there,” he says, “and I’ve got a bucketful of those.”
Plus, being on the front end of the rainy season, the area’s most legally accessible repository of fossils, the Peace River, will soon be flowing with high water, making extractions from the riverbed a formidable obstacle. And while erosion from summer rains can bring potential windfalls for fossil hunters, developers and private landowners don’t take kindly to trespassers.
Yet, if you can obtain permission, the phosphate-mined “Bone Valley” region of Hardee, Hillsborough, Manatee and Polk counties can be quite productive for prehistoric remnants.
Roberts cites dramatic differences between the teeth of megalodons — giant sharks that vanished nearly 4 million years ago — recovered from coastal sands and those exhumed from Bone Valley. The former are almost always uniformly black; Bone Valley specimens, by contrast, can produce striking variations of blue and grey. And, of course, the bigger and more colorful, the more those ancient carnivore choppers can fetch on the market.
Roberts says newbies are welcome to join MFC — just don’t expect members to spill the beans on where their favorite digging holes are. “You tend to work a spot as far as you can before you let that out,” he says.
But mercenary aspirations are low on Roberts’ list of motivations. Some things, like the Eocene coffee table, are difficult to price.
“A friend once told me to think about it; you’re the first person to see those fish in 50 million years,” he says. “And that is kind of amazing, to get a fleeting glimpse, this snapshot, of what life used to be like. To really big fish in a big fat slab of rock — it’s almost a sculptural piece. I’d call it an objet d’art.”