Stalking the Perfect Fossil Shell

In popular legend, the fossil hunter always had a museum quality fossil collection. Bones of dinosaurs, skulls of cavemen and rare shells collected over a lifetime - displayed as a background while sipping Sherry and enjoying a Sherlock Holmes style meerschaum classic English calabash pipe of smoldering tobacco with friends in a book-filled Victorian era study.

Of course, this private curator was usually a professor - who stocked and researched the collection, giving each item a detailed label depicting the species and location of collection. Additionally, he would commit to memory the technical Latin names, circa dates and geological history of the collection in case he was asked about a particular specimen.

In this age of progress, collecting fossil shells before they are crushed for roads and other manmade structures has become a trendy hobby among Florida's shell collectors. Beginning collectors often gather hundreds of fossils in just one field trip, and have no idea what they have amassed. It is then that they wish they could have a private curator as a guide. That wish came true for an eager group guided by Gary Schmelz, Ph.D., to the Big Island Quarry in Collier County, near Naples, Florida.

Not only did we have the advantage of a knowledgeable guide, but one that took us into a pit so chock full of fossil shells that we hardly knew where to begin. Oh yes, the usual shells were there - hundreds of Chione elevate, Dosinia elegans, Dinocardium robsutum, Oliva sayana, Astralium phoebium, and Pyrazisinus scalatus - but we also encountered Vokesmurx rubidium, Pleuroploca gigantean and Eupleura sulcidentata. Shells were not the only trophies - black phosphate-colored crab claws and even some shells lined with amber-colored dog's tooth spar calcite crystals were snapped up. After stomping through mud puddles, climbing sand and shell hills, sliding down on an avalanche of cascading grapefruit sized rocks and swatting off mad wasps - everyone brought home a prize for their private museum. And if that were not enough, a post-collecting gathering at a local restaurant resulted in story swapping, bragging and new friendships - and ended with our fossil shell guru conducting a raffle for some serious prizes - shells that would make even the most hard-edged collector itch with anticipation of perhaps adding one to his or her collection. Thus the newest addition to my mini-museum was a geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck - Panopea floridana) that was won with lucky raffle-number 2.

Bill Hoefer

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