Jonathan Bloch, a paleontologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History, discusses fossils of alligators and other animals found at the Montbrook dig site near Williston, Florida. His team compares the prehistoric alligator fossils to the bones of today’s alligators through digital modeling and shares the findings across the globe.
Interview and videos produced by Olivia Stultz for Explore Research at the University of Florida.
Jonathan Bloch: A few years ago we were notified by a landowner that a fossil deposit had been found on his land. The Florida Museum of Natural History went out to investigate what had been found and what we discovered was that a fossil deposit from an age that we know very little about had been discovered less than an hour from Gainesville.
So this was very exciting to us because it gave us an ability to look and see what kind of animals lived between 5 and 6 million years ago here in Florida. So the types of things that we found in the fossil deposit — the most abundant things are the kinds of things that live in water. We find many different kinds of fishes. We find all kinds of different turtles and we also find alligator fossils there.
So the purpose of this research was to very thoroughly document what the animals look like — what kinds of animals existed — between 5 and 6 million years ago here in Florida. When we collect fossils it’s actually a pretty complicated process that really starts with the discovery and removing the fossils from the field. Then there’s a whole other phase to the research as we bring them back to the lab. Once they’re cleaned off and they’re ready to be put into the collections that’s the point where we can actually start the research.
So with these 5- to 6-million-year-old alligator fossils the next step is that we need to compare these skulls to other fossils that have been described in the past as well as bones of recently dead alligators to see how they might be similar or different. And the way we’ve always done this in the past is just to put bones side-by-side. However if you are publishing these, not everyone has access to your fossils, so one of the next steps for us is to capture them digitally and we do that using laser scanning technology to create 3D models which we then use for research as well as educating both other scientists as well as students who are just interested in understanding something about the evolution of alligators.
Edward Stanley: So today we are digitizing the specimens from Montbrook essentially turning them into three-dimensional digital objects that we can share both over the internet and on computers here at the museum. So this involves using a light scanner, and so we basically paint the entire specimen with light using the camera and then it reconstructs that in three dimensions. We take that 3D model and then put that up online and then anyone can download it and take measurements from it.
Jonathan Bloch: The alligators between 5 and 6 million years ago are very interesting because they don’t look exactly like the alligators that we see in Florida today — those are the American alligators, Alligator mississippiensis — but they look very close. So it shows us that in this strange type of world, one that would be hard to recognize today, an amazingly resilient group that survived for millions of years through periods of global climate change — these animals have persisted here in the aquatic ecosystems in North Florida. So we’re looking into that world of the alligator which has been really very exciting to us.
Learn more about the Vertebrate Paleontology collection at the Florida Museum.
Learn more about the Montbrook site