The Pre-historic Plant Composition of the Vero Beach, Florida Fossil Site

The Vero Beach Fossil Site in Florida has provided scientists with a remarkable treasure of data.  The initial excavation took place in 1915, and it sparked a controversy at the time because conventional wisdom assumed humans did not overlap in time with Ice Age megafauna in North America.  The discovery of human remains in the same strata here as mammoths, mastodons, and giant ground sloths debunked that conventional wisdom. (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2012/02/19/the-vero-beach-mammoth-engraving/) A few years ago James Kennedy found a megafaunal bone with an engraving of a mammoth on it here, re-igniting interest in the site.  James Adovasio of Mercyhurst University is conducting a re-excavation of the site before the city of Vero Beach eventually converts it to a concrete sewer drain.

Location in Indian River County and the state of Florida

Location of Vero Beach.  

Excavation begins at Vero Beach

Re-excavation of the Vero Beach Fossil Site.

In addition to the human remains and artifacts, the Vero Beach site has yielded the bones of mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, pampatheres, bison, horse, tapir, deer, saber-tooth, jaguar, dire wolf, rabbit, cotton rat, round-tailed muskrat, shrew, and alligator.  Most people are more interested in the archaeological finds than anything else uncovered at this site, but I’m more fascinated with the paleoecology.  So I was delighted when I came across an old paper written in 1915 by Edwin Berry entitled “The Fossil Plants from Vero Beach, Florida.”  I knew scientists had recovered plant remains here, but I thought they’d all turned to dust after being exposed to the atmosphere.  Apparently, Edwin Berry was able to identify and describe some of the plant remains prior to their dissolution.

The plants identified by Berry are typical of the same species found in the area today, suggesting little change in central Florida’s floral environment since 14,000 years ago.  Oak was the most common tree growing alongside this now extinct river.  (During the Pleistocene it was a tributary of the St. Johns River.)  The most common species of oak was swamp laurel oak (Quercus laurifolia), an evergreen species commonly found on moist sites throughout the modern day southeast.  Other components of this primeval forest were live oak, Chapman’s oak, willow oak, loblolly pine, corkwood, red maple, magnolia, cypress, saw palmetto, sabal palm, myrtle, holly, and pawpaw.  Arrowleaf viburnum, cocklebur, and sedges grew in the understory.  Water lettuce, water lilly, and knotweed occupied aquatic habitats. 

Live oak in Jacksonville, Florida.  Wow!  What a tree.

Diamondleaf Oak, Swamp Laurel Oak (Quercus laurifolia)

Leaves and acorns of swamp laurel oak (Quercus laurifolia).  These were the most common plant remains found at the Vero Beach Fossil site..

Sabal Palm.

Berry includes Pinus caribaea in his list of plants found at the Vero Beach fossil site.  At first I was excited that an extralimital species such as Carribbean pine might have formerly ranged into central Florida.  However, he wrote that Pinus caribaea still ranged into Florida.  I believe he was either using an archaic synonym for a species other than Carribbean pine such as slash pine or pond pine; or he simply had it confused with another species.  I just can’t figure out which species he was referring to because range maps of Carribbean Pine show that it originally was confined to the Carribbean and Central America, though it has been widely transplanted worldwide.  As far as I can determine, it did not naturally occur in central Florida when Berry published his article.

Berry listed the jujube (Ziziphus celata) among the plant remains found at this site.  This species prefers open sunny conditions on dry sandy soils and is the 1 species that doesn’t fit in with the habitat preferences of the other species listed here.  Berry wrote that it no longer occurred in Florida, but he was wrong.  Jujubes were discovered growing in Florida in 1948.  (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2013/06/20/the-florida-jujube-ziziphus-celata-a-pleistocene-relic/)  This species was once more widespread.  The Florida population is a disjunct relic related to similar species found in the America southwest.

I did find 1 species on Berry’s list that no longer ranges into this part of Florida–the willow oak (Quercus phellos).  Berry used Q. brevifolia, an archaic synonym as the scientific name for this species.  Willow oak still occurs in south Georgia but is more common in the piedmont.  Warmer summer temperatures may have made it difficult for this species to compete with other species in central Florida.  Its range may be in the process of contracting north.

Reference:

Berry, Edwin

“The Fossil Plants from Vero Beach, Florida”

Smithsonian Institution publication 1915?

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