- Swimming in a river with water so stained with tannins that it's impossible to see through, where there are alligators too, that is not my idea of a good time.
None of this bothers this guy, though.
He's a fossil hunter, and he's about to enter a whole other world.
Down there are fragments of Florida's ancient history, parts of fossilized animals that help tell a story about what this place used to look like and what used to live here.
There are a lot of misconceptions about this hobby, though.
Fossil hunters often make headlines for being money hungry and at odds with paleontologists.
Some sell their fossils to the highest bidder, or remove fossils without consideration for the environment where they were found.
But these bad apples overshadow the folks who've got an entirely different motivation.
As a matter of fact, fossil hunters can actually help paleontologists uncover our prehistoric past.
(upbeat music) Meet Jonathan Valentine.
He's a Florida fossil hunter and creator of the website and YouTube channel, Digging Science.
- You could be a eight-year-old kid who just got your first dinosaur book, and you're putting dinosaur stickers on the wall.
I'm in the same category as that.
- I think you're selling yourself a little bit short, okay?
Now, paleontologists use fossils to study the history of life on Earth.
Fossil hunters, they're not required to carry out such research.
Some do, but the majority are purely hobbyists.
- I've been looking for fossils since I could hold a shovel.
My dad, to his credit, really developed that.
But I don't think he understood where that was gonna take me, a lifelong passion and addiction.
- So when I think of hunting, I think of like predator and prey.
And fossils by definition have been sitting there for thousands, millions of years.
- The reason why most of us use hunting is because there's such an active primal component of it.
You're not just going out to like the grocery store and picking one off the shelf and taking it back to your house.
Last time I went fossil hunting, I got bit by a catfish.
- Oh, okay, so the fossils have subcontracted their security to the living creatures.
(chuckles) - [Jonathan] A lot of people will ask me how does it feel when I find a fossil.
And I think they're missing the journey.
It starts the night beforehand.
And I always have dreams about alligators in the wildlife.
But as soon as I get in the river, there's this anticipation that starts to build.
You've gotta go actively swimming, looking around edges.
You're entirely in the moment.
You have no idea what's gonna be uncovered, but you can tell that something's around the corner.
And that whole process of that anticipation building, that's the best part.
And then finding it is just the cherry on top.
Onto the next spot.
- I'm sold on the language, and then certainly the activity of what you're doing with fossil hunting.
So what sort of fossils do you hunt?
- [Jonathan] The majority, at least in the Southeastern United States and in Florida, there's two really awesome deposits of fossils that are very common, the big shark teeth, and the extinct Ice Age animals.
And so those are my two favorite things to hunt.
- Florida is chock-full of fossils, which a lot of people can find beachcombing.
But they're not just at the beach.
If you head inland to one of Florida's rivers, they can be found there too, along with other, bigger stuff.
- Deep hole right here.
- So why is Florida such a hotspot for fossils?
Here's what Michelle Barboza-Ramirez, a paleo professor and one of the hosts of the show "Eons," had to say about Florida's fossil history.
- Earth has changed a lot over the years.
Moving continents, massive climate fluctuations, and a whole lot of plants and animals that have come and gone.
Here we are about 200 million years ago, and Earth's one big continent is pulling apart.
Florida becomes part of North America, and during the dinosaurs' heyday, is covered by the ocean.
And that's why you won't be finding any dinosaur bones in Florida.
It wasn't until about 30 million years after the dinosaurs died out, the climate cooled, sea levels dropped, and the peninsula we now know as Florida began to surface.
Since then, Florida has gone underwater and come up for air a few times.
During the last glacial period of this planet, the climate was much cooler, and sea levels were thus much lower.
Warm water from the Gulf of Mexico moved up towards Florida, protecting it from the more extreme climates found further north.
During this time, the peninsula hosted a wide variety of plants and animals, some of which we might recognize, like humans.
But many were creatures that we wouldn't recognize.
Massive mammoths and mastodons, giant sloths, fearsome direwolves, huge short-faced bears, and even lions.
But by the end of the Ice Age, about 11,000 years ago, the climate was much warmer, and all those giants were gone.
- Anybody that knows fossils knows that the planet is always changing.
When the environment changes rapidly or drastically, it really puts a stress on how animals can adapt and survive.
- Fossils not only inform us of our past climate changes, they also provide insights into our current climate.
Paleontologists are currently using fossils to reconstruct what their environments would've been like and how they would've changed.
This will help scientists understand how and how much our climate is changing today.
- We're in what's been described as the sixth mass extinction.
We have animals dying off at an incredibly quick rate versus the background.
And a lot of that's due to quick changes in climate, as well as additional pressures by us.
You have to see what I just found.
Oh my God, that might be my first rhino tooth.
- Since fossils in the environment where they're found can be quite useful to scientists, Florida created a permit system for hobbyists who hunt vertebrates.
Any vertebrate fossils found are reported to the Florida Museum of Natural History.
- One thing that they still have of mine is a really cool rhino tooth.
We had this running rhino called Menoceras.
It comes from the early Miocene, which is like 19 million years ago.
That's only a short period that Florida was a land mass when it's normally under water.
And you find a lot of them out West, but you don't find a lot in Florida.
And then they've requested other things, but they mainly just wanted to scan them.
And so after they scan them and added them to their digital collection, they returned those fossils to me.
- So my image of fossil hunters is shaped a lot by pop culture and movies, the idea of smuggling rare bones to the highest bidder on the black market or the dark web somewhere.
How true is that?
- I don't think there's anything wrong as a whole with selling fossils to help fund more adventures and build a livelihood off of it.
You have to do it ethically, though.
The state needs to know what's out there.
We have a responsibility as a community to stay away from smuggling or taking things that are scientifically important.
- Fossil hunters have played a vital role in paleontology.
In fact, some have made significant contributions to the discipline.
Mary Anning has been called the unsung hero of fossil discovery.
She discovered the first known ichthyosaur, a complete plesiosaurus skeleton, a pterosaur, and so much more.
- Especially as like a citizen scientist, I think that's a really powerful thing about giving that agency back to the people, 'cause it can help push forward science.
- You sound like you're describing democracy, not just science, and I guess that's the citizen part, in terms of contributing to public knowledge and benefits.
- You need the hobbyists as much as you need the professional paleontologists.
You have to have them communicating and respecting each other.
- So you've got me interested.
I have not done fossil hunting.
Do I just jump in a river with a bucket?
- You might think that fossils are really rare and you're not gonna be able to find any if you go out.
That's a huge misconception.
Fossils are everywhere.
And it just takes a little bit of knowledge, a little bit of guidance, and hopefully a good community, and you'll be able to start finding them on your own.
- How has your passion for fossil hunting affected your relationship with nature?
- It's given me a much healthier respect for it.
When you're diving with an alligator and you get thrown back into the food chain for the first time in 10,000 years, it lets you appreciate what you're seeing.
And that appreciation really lets you enjoy and feel part of it instead of above it.
- Humans, you know, we think we're all that.
(laughs) I think fossil hunters know better.
To engage in fossil hunting to me feels like a way of humbling ourselves as a species before the larger project of life, to recognize just how briefly we have actually been on this Earth by finding those who used to be here and were here a lot longer when they were.
So humility, humility, humility.
It's not always about us.
Three, two, one.
(Baratunde claps) (dog panics) - [Jonathan] Oh, sorry, Dolly.
I'm so sorry.
- That dog is hella cute.
Not a fossil, but I'm very excited to discover this dog.
Thank you so much.