Well-worn tooth in the lower jaws of an American Mastodon.

The Calm After the Storm (1998 AD)

What happened during the last 500,000 years of SW Florida's Pleistocene Epoch to leave so many mammals -- young and old -- entombed collectively in a modern LaBelle retention pond? Was it the result of a catastrophic rise in water following a horrific hurricane? Were there great herds of mammoths, mastodons, horses, llamas and sloths trapped suddenly in the black of night by major flooding?

Or do the bones represent a gradual accumulation of animals trapped in LaBelle's soupy swamps over a period of 10 years, 100 years, 1,000 years or longer? And what were the conditions to make the bones ideal recepticles for fossilization? How did just the right combination of animals dying in just the right place, with just the right protective environment and all the right minerals seeping into their lifeless bones take place?

These are questions we have posed to paleontologists at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, who will be first beneficiaries of the fossils collected at the site.

Imagine a Florida rainy season in which the ground is already saturated just before a major storm hits. You would think wildlife would be prepared. After all, they live outside and should be accustomed to changes in the weather, season-after-season, year-after-year. They should know these weather patterns far better than our weathermen today with their sophisticated Dopler Radar and other storm-tracking equipment. They should know precisely where to go for high ground when the waters begin to reach flood stages. But there was no way to prepare these animals for the storm of the century or the storm of the milennia. Was such a storm was about to hit them?

It makes me wonder, did they look to the sky for signs the same way we do?

Did they notice a gradual build-up in the sky earlier in the day, or a cloud pattern that didn't quite look right? Or was it a sense of smell that told them a storm is brewing, or some other sense that we humans are not attuned to?

Whether they noticed or not, the sky was changing. If they had sought high ground in anticipation of the storm, they had better be there by now and stand ready to
wait it out.

And then it hit.

If the rain was excessive, it may reach them even on high ground. Then, in a panicked state, they might run aimlessly in all directions. Inevitably, some of them would blindly attempt to navigate the streams or wetlands that days earlier they may have been able to wade across. Even for those that could swim, the swift, deep, treacherous waters would be too much. A lot of animals would drown and their carcasses would be washed along with the current, perhaps piling up around submerged trees or in deep bends of the swamp or stream. The young, the healthy, the old, the diseased, would all meet the same fate.

By the first morning following the storm, a gentle breeze would begin to push the remaining clouds far out to sea, leaving behind several days of tranquil sunrises and sunsets.

Over the next couple of weeks, animal carcasees would have bloated and sunk to the bottom. Alligators, gar fish and other aquatic scavengers would feed on some of the dead, but others would be buried quickly by sand, mud and debris.

For the remaining bones, there would be a long calm after the storm. A half million years would pass. During that time, other storms would come and go, but none would disturb this particular burial ground. In total darkness, the sand and mud would protect the bones while iron and other minerals slowly began the fossilization process.