The Regional Review

Volume III - No. 6

December, 1939


More Excavations Planned in Florida State Park

By H. S. Ladd,
Regional Geologist,

tortoise shell
Front View of Shell. Light Area on Right is Original Material. Darker Portion on Left, Being Scraped by Mr. Simpson, is Plaster.

Early in 1933, while excavating a ditch in Highlands Hammock State Park, Florida, workmen uncovered a deposit of vertebrate fossils lying only three to four feet below the surface of the ground. The first fossils found were pieces of large tusks which, unfortunately, were not given immediate treatment and disintegrated quickly upon exposure to the air. Directly beneath the tusks was found a nearly complete shell together with some of the bones of a giant land tortoise. Under supervision of an anthropologist from Rollins College, the unique specimen was excavated carefully, still partly embedded in a matrix of marl. Exposed parts of the shell and bones received a protective coating of shellac.

Remaining portions of the marl jacket were removed recently and the missing parts of the shell restored in plaster. The work (see photograph above) was done by Clarence Simpson, of the Florida Geological Survey. The tortoise is perhaps the second most complete large fossil yet found in Florida, according to Herman Gunter, State Geologist, and that fact is considered ample justification for an attempt to find additional material. Arrangements accordingly have been made for geological reconnaissance and investigation by Civilian Conservation Corps forces with Mr. Simpson supervising all field work. Excavations will be started close to the spot where the tortoise was discovered --- a point adjacent to Tiger Branch Drive, about one-half mile west of the park entrance. It is hoped that enough material will be obtained eventually to warrant construction of a small park museum. Meanwhile, the giant tortoise will be placed on exhibition in a glass case in the park and the State Geological Survey plans to make a plaster cast of the specimen for its collection.

The Highlands Hammock tortoise is one of the giants of its race. Its dome-like shell is nearly three feet high, individual plates in the shell measuring five inches in diameter. More than half of the original shell was found intact, but several plates had become separated from the shell either before or during excavation. In the restoration, these loose plates have been carefully put back in their proper places. Missing parts of the shell were built out with ordinary screen to which plaster was applied to form the desired shape.

In life, this giant tortoise probably weighed more than 500 pounds. Its exact age has not been determined because, so far as known, no absolutely identical specimen has been found elsewhere. If the tusks found with the tortoise were Mammoth tusks, it is probable that the tortoise lived during the Ice Age that closed about 25,000 years ago. If, however, the tusks were those of a Mastodon, they may indicate a much greater age (Miocene). It is hoped that additional fossils will be found so that the age of the tortoise can be determined more accurately.

A giant fossil tortoise similar to the one found in Florida has been unearthed in Cuba, but reptiles of this type have long been extinct in both places. Living relatives are found only on the Galapagos (Tortoise) Islands off the coast of South America and in certain islands of the Indian Ocean. In all places the tortoises were hunted relentlessly for food in the early days and more recently for scientific purposes.

In 1924, Dr. William Beebe, of the New York Zoological Society, published a beautifully illustrated popular account of the natural history of the Galapagos Islands1, in which the living giant tortoises are the subject of a lengthy and most interesting chapter. Beebe's expedition found only one live tortoise, but his book contains numerous quotations from the works of earlier visitors, including Charles Darwin.

According to early accounts, tortoise meat is a delicious food and the thick layers of tortoise fat can be rendered to a most satisfactory substitute for butter. During the nineteenth century, many whaling vessels stopped at the Galapagos, each loading hundreds of tortoises. They were ideal food for sailing ships because they could be stored alive in the hold without food or water for months at a time. One ship is said to have loaded 14 tons of tortoises in four days. The largest taken in the Galapagos exceeded 300 pounds. They walked slowly and heavily, with the body nearly a foot off the ground. Some specimens were capable of carrying two men. These large tortoises were probably several hundred years old. Only a few survive and they will leave no descendant for now-a-days all young tortoises are promptly eaten by wild dogs. Living giant tortoises have become as rare as the fossils in the rocks.

(1) Galapagos, World's End, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York and London.

sketch of tortoise and hunter

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Date: 04-Jul-2002