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Ruskin paleontologist puts the hip into bones

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By Mitch Traphagen

RUSKIN — Frank Garcia has a way of making paleontology hip. On Saturday nights, Garcia and his guests grab microphones to belt out tunes standing next to an enormous skull of a tyrannosaurs Rex in the “Rex Room” on the lower level of his Ruskin home. Lining the walls and in cases are more skulls and artifacts from his years of bone hunting. Through those years he has gained acceptance and recognition in the science community along with world fame. Not bad for a guy without a degree in paleontology.

Paleontologist Frank Garcia of Ruskin carefully cleans the bones of a 35-million-year-old Oreodont. He found the fanged sheep-like creature on his ranch in western Nebraska. Mitch Traphagen photo
Garcia has changed the way we understand history. No, not American history — a bit further back than that. Two million or 35 million years further back from that. Here in Florida, he has discovered creatures that were previously not known to exist — at least 30 in all — and rose to fame with what some think is the world’s largest known deposit of ice-age fossils in the Leisey Shell Pit near the Little Manatee River. Along the way he has opened a window to our far-distant past for thousands of children — at least 50,000 by his count.
“A dinosaur tooth will trump the Mona Lisa every time in front of a thousand kids,” he said.
Last Saturday, just outside the door of the Rex Room, Garcia unveiled the bones of a 35-million-year-old sheep-like creature called an Oreodont. But this wasn’t your ordinary run-of-the-mill little sheep — it had fangs.
“They were grazers but their canines suggest they were more aggressive than your normal sheep,” Garcia said.
Garcia is a man of deep passion — for his friends and for bones. That passion is what has made a former tradesman into a world renowned scientist. He is a man comfortable in his own skin but leads a dual life between his home in Florida and his ranch in the panhandle of Nebraska.
The Oreodont, the fanged sheep, came from Nebraska. Garcia found it, protected the entire fossil in a plaster cast and brought it home to Florida. Garcia leads three expeditions a year to his ranch, taking 35 or 40 visitors out into the scrub and badlands to search for their own pieces of history. In the search, perhaps Garcia and his guests find their own legacies — the knowledge that some things do remain in this world. The dry high plains climate helps to ensure that.
“The springtime sage permeates the air up there,” Garcia said. “The first thing my guests notice is the smell of the prairie air. We stay at a place called the High Plains Homestead across the dirt road from my ranch. They have homemade food, pies and bread — it’s been a big hit with all of my clients.”
But the thrill of staying in a western bunkhouse and visiting the cook shack, however, is no match for the expedition itself.
“It’s fun watching visitors freak out when seeing and meeting a creature from another time,” Garcia said. “Then there’s the excitement of having their wonderful discovery from my ranch on display in their own homes. Clients can keep anything they find, I have no restrictions on that. Some of those finds have been worth as much as $10,000 to $18,000.”
Garcia earned his degree the hard way — through a natural talent, know-how, experience and passion. A previously unknown species of antelope now bears his name, Antilopcaptra Garciae. Another creature, the Kyptoceras Amatorum, a giraffe-like animal with antelope horns, was named in his honor. On Saturday, Garcia provided a small Oreodont, the fanged sheep with an attitude, with a measure of immortality. Thirty-five million years after that very animal laid down and died, it has come back for us to see, to touch, to understand. This little Oreodont has not been forgotten.
Through his discoveries, Garcia has already achieved his own level of immortality. But for the rest of us, he has demonstrated that it is possible to leave something behind after this life. Some things do last forever — or at least close to it. Through the bones of the little fanged sheep and countless other creatures, Garcia has illustrated the possibility that we could indeed be remembered.
Mitch Traphagen photo Garcia has shared his discoveries with tens of thousands of people over the years and has been featured on national television programs and in magazines. “A dinosaur tooth will trump the Mona Lisa everytime in front of a 1,000 kids,” he said. Above, a measure of immortality for a creature millions of years old.
In his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, author William Faulkner said, “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
Without knowing it, Faulkner perfectly described Frank Garcia.
“It’s a sad shame that paleontology is considered the ‘Rodney Dangerfield’ of the sciences by the “power people’,” Garcia said, discussing his chosen branch of science.
But then again, the “power people” have probably never led a group of children (or business executives) crawling on the ground to make new discoveries, or have never belted out tunes on a Saturday night in the Rex Room. Like the Oreodont, Garcia has prevailed.
For more information about his Nebraska expeditions or his books, including the biography, I Don’t Have Time To Be Sane: The Life Story of One of the Most Notorious Fossil Hunters in America, call 813-641-7691 or email garciafossilfinder@yahoo.com.

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