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Fossil-rich Creekwood lake offers teachable moments

EAST MANATEE — Ryan Owsianka, 12, ran down to the large lake in the Westbrook section of Creekwood and, within minutes, found a roughly inch-long black shark’s tooth embedded in the bank.

“I would bet that you could keep kids occupied for an hour looking for fossils,” said Liz Sullivan, who lives on 72nd Street East and has the lake behind her house.

Actually, that’s exactly what Sullivan and some of her neighbors hope to do.

They want to invite fossil experts to the lake, which they say is too rich in fossils to permit it to simply be used as the final destination of storm water that flows through a nearby culvert.

“More kids should get involved or interested in what is right under their feet,” said Sullivan, who has a collection of as yet unidentified fossils found in the lake by friends and relatives.

On Thursday, Sullivan invited Ryan and his friends, Cesar Bernal, 12, and Cesar’s brother, Isaac, 10, to help search for fossils.

“I think anything educational like this is worthwhile,” said Barbara Owsianka, Ryan’s mother.

But Sullivan has some hurdles to clear before she can invite an expert on fossils to come to the lake and speak to the children.

She may have to go before the Creekwood community development district, which generally controls common areas in the community. She will have to find out what her neighbors will think of an occasional archeological dig in the lake.

But all that hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm.

“What do you think this is, maybe a tusk of a mastodon?” Sullivan asked Ryan, who studied the object intently.

“Kids need to go fossil searching,” Sullivan added. “I would like kids to be involved in this lake.”

Even though “Westbrook Lake” is actually an excavation and not natural, according to Charlie Hunsicker, director of Manatee County’s natural resources department, it may be loaded with teachable moments.

The first foot of the lake would reveal the fossilized remains of the marine environment that encompassed what is now Manatee County 10,000 years ago.

“You can go back and find the bone fragments of prehistory,” Hunsicker said.

Roughly 10,000 years ago, large animals roamed Manatee County. These included the Colombian mammoth, giant ground sloth, the North American horse, Paleollama, sabre-toothed cat and mastodons, Hunsicker said.

“In terms of Tyrannosaurus Rex and other dinosaurs, no, because many parts of Florida were under the sea,” Hunsicker added.

The fossils the kids are finding may be part of the “mega fauna” found in what was known as the Pleistocene Epoch, said Valerie Bell, curator of collections at the South Florida Museum.

The Pleistocene Epoch spanned from 1.8 million years ago until 10,000 years ago, Bell said.

Hunsicker advises Sullivan and her neighbors to take things step by step.

“First, find out who owns the lake and get permission to conduct regular field trips,” Hunsicker said. “There are a number of hobbyists who would enjoy an occasional opportunity to let kids and their parents dig.”

Jim Toomey, a Bradenton resident, is a paleontologist and may be willing to come to Creek-wood, said Jeff Rodgers, director of education at South Florida Museum.

Rodgers himself is willing to come to Creekwood to help Sullivan and the kids identify the fossils.

“All they have to do is call me or e-mail me,” said Rodgers, who can be reached by e-mail at jrodgers@southfloridamuseum.org or by phone at the museum, 746-4131, extension 22.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 708-7917.

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