A hobby turned into history when two Florida Museum of Natural History volunteers found the bones of a new species of extinct heron at the Montbrook fossil dig site.
The species has been named Taphophoyx hodgei in honor of Eddie Hodge, owner of the private property outside of Williston where the dig site is located.
Florida Museum curator of ornithology, David Steadman, and research assistant Oona Takano identified the species after its discovery and published their findings.
Takano said the Montbrook site is the first of its age to be found in North Florida. It is estimated to be 5 to 5.5 million years old.
“The fossils we are finding from the site include many complete bones, a high diversity of terrestrial vertebrates and many new species,” Takano said.
Takano said they identified the heron fossil using the bones of the bird’s shoulder girdle, which showed shape differences from those of previously known herons.
The new species is just the first of possibly many species to be found from the site, said Takano. Other birds from the site have primarily been aquatic species.
Jonathan Bloch, Florida Museum curator of vertebrate paleontology and a coordinator of the fossil dig, said fossils are not identified at the site, and it is likely the volunteers did not know what they found.
“Very often, we don’t know how exciting it is until much later after we’ve gone back to the lab and had a chance to study them,” Bloch said.
More than 700 volunteers have worked at the fossil site. The dig takes place during a period of three to four weeks in the fall and the spring.
Bloch said the site, which has been used since mid-November 2015, is one of the most important fossil sites found in Florida in decades.
“It really gives us a window into what North Florida was like here 5 to 6 million years ago in a river-type of environment,” Bloch said.