By Christina Lavris
In Motion Saff Writer
For most, Daytona Beach is known best for its beautiful beaches, but for paleontologists it’s a treasure trove of Ice Age fossils.
It’s pretty hard to imagine Daytona without the beach, but during the Ice Age Pleistocene epoch between 11,700 and 2.6 million years ago, the beach was 50 miles farther out than it is today and much of Florida resembled the Serengeti more than the subtropical paradise of today.
James “Zach” Zacharias, senior curator of education and history at the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona Beach, is an avocational paleontologist, that is he works in the field of paleontology but does not have a degree in it. He gives tours and teaches about plants and animals featured in the Ice Age at the Prehistory of Florida exhibit at MOAS. He has also worked at many fossil dig sites.
“In 2011, I discovered the Daytona Mastodon. The crew at a construction site said they found something and they had me come out to identify the animal and I ended up discovering that we had almost a complete skeleton there,” said Zacharias.
The discovery was found just off Nova Road near Mason Avenue. Unfortunately, the fossils were badly damaged when they were uncovered by the construction crew.
“Because the mastodon had been hit by a bulldozer, it got smashed up into millions of pieces. I do believe it was a complete skeleton, but some of it got carried off. So, what we have is enough to do kind of a silhouette of parts of the body,” said Zacharias.
The mastodon was sent to the University of Florida, where Dr. Richard Holbert, a vertebrate paleontologist, helped identify the bones. The intact fossils were mounted on a large silhouette style display that cost $10,000 and is now on exhibit a MOAS, along with a giant ground sloth that was discovered in 1975.
The giant ground sloth was discovered at the bottom of a retention pond in Reed Canal Park just off Nova Road, about 12-feet below ground level. This layer, 12-feet below ground, is known as the “Daytona Bone Bed” because it is where many Ice Age fossils are found.
Zacharias is a Florida native, born and raised in Miami. He attended Florida State University, University of Central Florida and Nova Southeastern University, where he received his master’s degree in American history with an emphasis on Florida.
Twenty-four years ago, he began to volunteer at MOAS until he was eventually offered a job. Soon after, he realized that nobody on staff really knew much about paleontology or the fossils on display, so he took the initiative to teach himself the study of plant and animal fossils.
Another self-taught local paleontologist is Don Brunning, an Audio/Video instructor at Atlantic High School, who was also present at the 2011 Mastodon dig. During the dig his wife April, who works at Daytona State as an online producer for WDSC, brought her crew to the site and recorded footage of the dig. They discovered they had enough footage for an episode and used the footage to make a pilot episode to kickstart an 8-episode series called “Fossil Hunters,” broadcast on local PBS stations. Zacharias and his wife Allison were also a part of the show.
Brunning became interested in fossils as a young child, collecting shark’s teeth along the beach of Venice, Fla. during family holidays, where he found strange animal bone fragments along with the shark teeth.
The thought of finding animal bones alongside shark teeth in the ocean both puzzled and intrigued him, so he bought a book about Florida fossils and learned that what was now covered in ocean was once hundreds of miles of dry land inhabited by giant land mammals during the Ice ages.
“So, when I would snorkel out and find these big chunks of bone, I was literally swimming over what used to be dry land. I found mammoth, mastodon, glyptodont, which was a giant armadillo about the size of a VW Bug, camel, paleo-llama and horses. So that was it, that got me hooked, and from that point on, once I could dive as a teenager, I’d start to get deeper and deeper into the water. I found all kinds of stuff,” said Brunning.
Brunning later went to college at UCF, which was then called Florida Tech University. He graduated with a degree in philosophy and a minor in physical fitness. After college, he moved to California for a while to “find himself” and play music before moving back to Florida.
In 1990, Brunning and another diver discovered the twelfth largest fossil site in Florida in the Wekiva River. The site contained mammoths, mastodons, camels, short-faced bears, and more. He donated his finds, including two complete 8-foot mastodon tusks to the Museum of Florida at the University of Florida, where they are used for research purposes.
For information about the Prehistory of Florida exhibit and to view the Daytona Mastodon and other fascinating fossils, visit the MOAS or check out their website at www.moas.org. For more information about the show “Fossil Hunters,” visit its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/fossilhunterstvshow.