RUSKIN, Fla. – After several decades spent digging in a phosphate pit, Frank Garcia finally emerged with a treasure that will go down in history.
The paleontologist learned Friday that his discovery of a small manatee-like creature is an official species. It took decades and about 70 fossil pieces for Garcia to put together the long-extinct Nanosiren garciae. The fossils will be displayed at Smithsonian Institution and the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.
Garcia found some of the animal's bones in deep pits dug by a phosphate mining company in the 1960s. He continued searching the area, gathering bone fragments from pits in Polk and Hardee counties, sending them to the Smithsonian Institution.
Daryl Domning, a professor of anatomy at Howard University, helped piece together the 6-foot animal, which he said probably lived about 5-million years ago in the Caribbean.
It most likely became extinct when north and south America were connected, he said. The Isthmus of Panama cut off the Caribbean from the Indian Ocean and southwest Pacific Ocean, the only place dugongs are found today.
"We knew it wasn't like anything else, but there wasn't anything more we could say about it until we got more complete material, like a skull," he said. "It took a long time for that to be found."
The fossils were small, yet its bone structure and teeth showed it was full-grown. And at only 6 feet long, it didn't compare to the other sea cows, which were double its size, Domning said.
But don't confuse this Caribbean sea cow with the beloved Florida manatee. The Nanosiren garciae had a dolphin-like tail rather than a paddle, and tusks about an inch long, Domning said.
Gradually, Domning, Garcia and other amateur paleontologists pulled together enough evidence to convince the scientific community.
"I spent so many hours, dug so many holes and walked so many miles of phosphate mines," said Garcia of Ruskin. "This means a lot to me."