Winter Springs resident digs up millennia of history right in our own backyard!
Fossil hunter Valerie First makes no bones about it: There is more to history than meets the eye. You just have to dig a little to find it.
“When I was little, my parents took trips throughout the West, and I was fascinated by finding all these different kinds of rocks,” Valerie says. “I wanted to know more about the rocks, so I studied them.”
That early interest forged in Valerie a lifelong goal to learn as much as possible about the world in which we live and where we come from. Today, as a member of the Florida Fossil Hunters, Valerie brings to life that love affair with all things Mother Earth.
The Orlando-based group is dedicated to “bringing about a greater understanding of prehistoric Florida and thus a greater appreciation of Florida’s unique environment.” Valerie does her part giving volunteer talks at the Orlando Science Center and the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens, educating the public about what can be found just beneath the surface of Florida. She especially enjoys showing off fossils of animals like mammoths, mastodons, saber cats, giant beavers, and giant ground sloths that shared the area with Florida’s earliest inhabitants.
“Florida was underwater when dinosaurs roamed the Earth about 65 million years ago,” Valerie explains, “and there weren’t any people around.”
Valerie has amassed a collection of replica prehistoric skulls of “long-ago humans,” as she calls them, and has two dinosaur bones on her exhibit table in addition to a variety of other ancient artifacts.
“It is exciting to look at an arrowhead that someone made 5,000 years ago,” Valerie says. “Then you think about much older fossils in Africa that are more than three million years old.”
Valerie’s desire to share her knowledge began when her daughter, Eden Capps, asked Valerie to talk to her sixth-grade class about fossils. That was 22 years ago, and Valerie has been giving volunteer presentations ever since.
“Valerie has been with us almost 10 years,” says Zack Lynn, the Science Center’s volunteer manager. “Her knowledge about fossils is contagious, and she keeps it up-to-date. She has her own prehistoric fossil collection, and without that, our visitors would miss out.”
Valerie’s enthusiasm is also contagious.
“People are very receptive to my discussions because they have no idea that these animals lived here in Florida,” she said in an essay about her work. “The Florida Fossil Hunters are made up of passionate people, not unlike other passionate people, but ones with a love for digging into life, literally.”
Children seem to show the biggest interest in Valerie’s exhibit. Her skeleton of a giant sloth head and a large mammoth tooth are always crowd-pleasers. Valerie cheerfully describes the reaction of a young fossil enthusiast from Tallahassee who recently looked at her artifacts with awe and repeatedly said, “How cool is that!”
Fossils are plentiful in Florida, but you have to know where to look.
“Mostly around the rivers,” Valerie reports. “Especially the Peace River [in Southwest Florida], but you have to be aware of high water.”
The Florida Fossil Hunters are gearing up for their next big event, the 24th annual Fossil Fair at the Orlando Fairgrounds on November 5 and 6.
“It is just another way of letting people know more about our state,” says Valerie, who is the chairman of the event. “It is important for people to realize the concepts of time and our relationship to all of life and to each other.”
The Florida Fossil Hunters meet at 3:00 p.m. at the Orlando Science Center on the third Saturday of the month to share their finds with others, coordinate field trips, and publish a newsletter. They also try to enhance the cooperative spirit between amateur and professional paleontologists and promote Florida paleontology through education.
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